Did you know that behind those eHarmony commercials that are hosted by their avuncular, relentlessly upbeat founder -- and that promise a lifetime of soul mate bliss -- is a company run by someone with an unabashed religious and social mission? A company that by its own admission has rejected over a million people for reasons that range from not being "happy enough" (on a happy-meter they handily provide) to being divorced too many times, to being gay.
Dr. Neil Clark Warren, the evangelical-Christian-turned-entrepreneur who started eHarmony by leveraging the distribution power of Reverent Dobson's media network and his "Focus on the Family" organization, has been very clear about what he wants to accomplish, despite the recent and expedient secularization of his brand.
Actually, eHarmony isn't just a brand; it's an ideological vessel, a brandologue. As the first line of its Wikipedia entry states, "eHarmony is a Christian-founded, marriage-oriented matchmaking website." There's nothing wrong with that, it's absolutely legitimate for eHarmony to seek to accomplish its goals of encouraging faith and marriage via marketing. And I would defend their right to say it in a Voltaire-lite fashion, meaning I'm not so sure about the "to the death" part. But it's also equally legitimate for a competitor to call eHarmony out on its agenda, to shine a light onto who they are and what they believe so consumers can make informed choices, and to trigger a healthy debate over what constitutes a productive and healthy relationship, straight or gay.
And that's just what's happening. This week, our agency launched an advertising campaign for our client Chemistry.com that takes on eHarmony boldly and directly. There are TV commercials and print ads that challenge eHarmony's agenda and restrictiveness, and that invite women and men who are seeking a relationship on their own terms to join Chemistry.com. (You can view them on YouTube.) The campaign continues on the Chemistry.com website, where the brand is holding a "Great Mate Debate" that involves bloggers as diverse as Wendy Shalit, Dan Savage and Ed Young. (Disclosure: Chemistry.com is owned by IAC, a company that does business with the Huffington Post).
This debate is long overdue. We are in era of full transparency. Consumers are rightly making brand choices on an expanded spectrum of factors, including where a company stands on issues they care deeply about -- whether that be global warming, child labor practices, partner rights for employees or a host of other public policy matters. You don't leave your values and passions behind when you're in the checkout aisle. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have joined eHarmony, and paid them dutifully each month, without knowing where eHarmony stands and what it believes. That's simply wrong.
Not surprisingly, eHarmony has been clever enough to recognize that increasingly, consumers are putting their choices under a microscope. So as the company grew into a mass consumer brand, they began keep their agenda quiet and cut any ties that could restrict their growth. In fact, Warren ditched his close association with Reverend Dobson and "Focus on Family." In his own words, Warren admitted that the link would be a "killer." I'd actually have more respect for them if they didn't go through this convoluted distancing process, and had the courage to stand behind Dobson. But it seems to me that Warren, seduced by Mammon in the archetypal faith vs. greed struggle, decided to grow his business at the expense of his values. (I'm sure the venture capitalists that plowed more than $100 million into his business -- the fourth largest investment of 2004 according to Wikipedia -- had something to say about it, too.)
Here's an extended quote from a USA Today article:
"Warren started out marketing primarily to Christian sites, touting eHarmony as "based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren." The connection may come as a surprise to today's mainstream users: Nothing in Warren's TV or radio ads ($50 million spent last year, $80 million projected this year) hints at his Christian background. And while it's no secret, the Web site doesn't play it up, either.
eHarmony increasingly is seeking out secular audiences through online partnerships, including promotions on USATODAY.com and other news sites owned by USA TODAY's parent company, Gannett. As part of that effort, Warren is trying to distance himself from Focus on the Family and its founder James Dobson, a longtime friend. Warren says he will no longer appear on Dobson's radio show, and he recently bought back the rights to the three books Focus on the Family published -Finding the Love of Your Life, Make Anger Your Ally and Learning to Live with the Love of Your Life - so he can drop Focus' name from their covers. "We're trying to reach the whole world - people of all spiritual orientations, all political philosophies, all racial backgrounds," Warren says. "And if indeed, we have Focus on the Family on the top of our books, it is a killer. Because people do recognize them as occupying a very precise political position in this society and a very precise spiritual position."
It's also clear that eHarmony's agenda pervades every aspect of its product. Their emphasis on "compatibility" and their "compatibility" profile that leads to people getting matched on what's called homogamy (or sameness) are all part of their philosophical approach: people who share the same values -- preferably conservative -- belong together. The Chemistry.com brand, by contrast, has no agenda and no dogma it is in the business of evangelizing. It believes that there are many remarkable and rewarding relationships based on complementarily, and they've put together a matching system that's based on the work of the biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher.
I believe that what Chemistry.com has pioneered is the beginning of the next wave of marketing, as companies and brands define themselves in the competitive marketplace by not just how they perform, but their values and belief systems. As an example, the popular Mac vs. PC spots still operate in the world of comparative functionality, but what we've done with Chemistry.com goes beyond that. It recognizes that consumers want to know more, and it respects and honors those demands. So whether it's investments in Sudan, hiring child labor, or trying to advance a not-fully-disclosed faith-based social agenda through bouncy TV commercials, there are two simple and scary words for marketers today:
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