"There are tons of opportunities for marketers who might have historically shied away form this market," says Tata Sato, director of MindShare Consumer Insights, who came upon this revelation following an exhaustive religious research study codenamed "Project Faith."
"Religion, along with sex and politics, is one of the three taboo topics that we're never supposed to talk about," she says, adding that the study revealed that Evangelicals, are not only the largest segment of the U.S. population, but are also the most organized, most influential and, not surprisingly, the best at marketing themselves to others.
"If you look at other segments in the Untied States, they're just not as well organized as Evangelicals," Sato says, noting that the Evangelical population has been growing while other religious segments have been flat or waning as a percentage of the U.S. population. One reason, she says, is that Evangelicals are most effective at recruiting converts, especially Hispanic immigrants who may have come from Roman Catholic roots, but who become Evangelicals because of the cultural and socio economic advantages the church has to offer in the U.S.
Much of the Evangelical church's success, she says, can be attributed to word-of-mouth and "below-the-line" marketing that may not be evident to casual observers, but she notes that the church also has embraced some fairly sophisticated mass media and marketing techniques that might rival those of some of Madison Avenue's biggest players, or media partners.
The Evangelical movement, for example, has been especially successful in music, video and book publishing, spawning a genre of Christian Rock music, children's videos such as "Veggie Tales," and popular literature like Book of Revelations thriller "Left Behind," which was also made into a popular video game.
"They have to make sure that they stay relevant with the popular culture," Sato says, noting that the Evangelical church has been an incredibly adaptive media player, spawning new genres and platforms based on mass appeal. Among the churches most "interesting manifestations," she says, was the formation of the Christian Wrestling Foundation, an Evangelical wrestling league that adapts parables of good and evil on the mat.
Another Evangelical mass media creation is the house of worship itself, especially so-called "mega churches," arena-size facilities capable of holding thousands of parishioners. MindShare's research indicates there currently are 6,000 churches in the U.S. that seat more than 1,000 (up from only 93 in 1963), and three that seat more than 20,000.
Incredibly, Madison Avenue has yet to embrace faith-based marketing despite the huge numbers, and potential influence. Political media strategists have long been early adopters, leveraging issues and campaign messages they know will appeal to specific religious values. And some mainstream marketers appear to be embracing Evangelical marketing, albeit in subtle and often grassroots ways.
Among the big consumer brands crafting faith-based marketing and media strategies are pharmaceutical marketers such as Pfizer and Merck, food marketers such as Tyson and Smucker's, automakers Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Suzuki and Hyundai, and the Curves fitness chain.
To introduce its new Aspen SUV line to the African American market, Chrysler sponsored singer Patti Labelle's 14-city mega church tour dubbed "The Gospel," and tied into media buys on BET and the Word Network.
To promote its motorcycle and SUV lines to the youth market, Suzuki sponsored Christian Rock band Kutless on their nationwide "Hearts Of Innocence" tour.
Marketers who want a less overt means of tapping the Evangelical market can do it more subtly by emphasizing media buys known to index high among the church's followers. According to MindShare's research, Evangelicals are disproportionately voracious viewers of crime shows such as "Cold Case," "Law & Order," "CSI: Miami," and "Criminal Minds," as well as syndicated courtroom reality shows. They're big readers of AARP, Reader's Digest, Country Home and Southern Living magazines.
For many marketers, Sato says subtlety may be the right approach, because coming out with overt marketing campaigns aimed at Evangelicals can be a double edged sword that could also disenfranchise followers of other religions.