Christian buying power can change business for the better. Integrity, excellent products and wholesome advertising beget loyalty from a demographic that spends $1.5 trillion annually. For shortsighted companies that dismiss the Christian market, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Nationally, 231 million Americans (77 percent) describe themselves as Christians, of which 140 million (44 percent) are weekly churchgoers.
"That's about one-third more than the most watched Super Bowl game in history, the New York Giants vs. The New England Patriots, which had 95 million viewers," said Greg Stielstra.
He and Bob Hutchins co-authored a new book, "Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide To Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers" (Wiley and Sons Publishers 2009). The book's stated goal "is to bridge the gap between Christians and the business community that may not exactly be at odds with each other, but clearly don't understand each other."
Hutchins led the online campaigns for Mel Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Stielstra was the marketing director at Thomas Nelson for "The Purpose-Driven Life" by Rick Warren, the bestselling hardcover book in American history.
Yet Christians remain a largely overlooked (if not downright dismissed) demographic in mainstream advertising. The authors make their marketing case based on 30 years of combined experience, independent surveys and extensive market research.
Superficially, one might suspect that "Faith Based Marketing" is a sales guide to exploit or commercialize Christianity. But the primer on promotion holds a number of surprises.
First, the commercial power of Christian customers is an eye-opener. For example, "The Purpose-Driven Life" by Rick Warren sold 30 million copies in its first three years driven by a church-based campaign. It sold faster than any Harry Potter book in the U.S.
Likewise, when Mel Gibson couldn't get any Hollywood studio to promote "The Passion of The Christ," he invited pastors nationally to private screenings. In turn, congregations were enthusiastically encouraged to see the movie, which grossed $551 million in its first nine weeks.
Secondly, the book offers marketing strategies by first debunking Christian stereotypes -- prudish, inflexible, uneducated and out of step with the times. Judge not lest ye lose big business. And it's not about selling religious products. Christian consumers have the same needs as everyone else -- food, clothing, education, fun and travel.
But the big difference is how they respond to advertising. Biblical scriptures discourage lust, adultery, greed, vulgar language and envy. So people of faith are repelled by ads using materialistic and sex-driven images. Christians want their beliefs respected as well as receiving excellent goods and services. Simply adding a cross to the packaging will not cause sales to skyrocket.
"Faith Based Marketing" turns the tables on businesses greedy to be part of the $1.5 trillion annually spent by people of faith. It's not about slick campaigns into Christian territory. It's a command for interested companies to clean house. And making money is the carrot to corporate donkeys to take the higher road in offering worthy products, integrity, service and wholesome advertising. Nowadays, technology has changed the advertising landscape. In the beginning, there was only one voice, the brand. And its monologue was about what customers wanted. Then mass media created a dialogue between the brand and buyers about product needs.
"Thanks to the Internet we now have a 'trialogue.' The audience can speak to brands. Brands can speak to the audience and the audience can speak to each other," said Stielstra.
This three-way exchange has created an "Age of Affinity" where consumers of like interests band together helping each other to find the best products and services. Christians now number 2.3 billion (one out of every three) people worldwide.
"We're the largest affinity group in this country and in the world, those who call Jesus Christ our savior," he said.
Affinity power was in evidence in November 2007 when Lowe's, the home improvement chain, advertised holiday "family trees." The backlash of 100,000 e-mails from Christians expressing outrage forced an apology and a return to the original label of Christmas trees.
"This can be an effective way to change behavior, but a boycott is always reactive and negative," Stielstra said.
Instead he advised Christian consumers to embrace faith-based marketing to their own benefit. Forge relationships with businesses. Teach them who you are and what matters to you. Then pledge your business and support when they honor and respect you. "Businesses want to please their customers. They will advertise where they think their customers are and on the types of programs they think Christians are watching, which in turn, will fund content Christians prefer and deprive the programs they avoid," Stielstra said.
In tapping into the huge Christian market, one strategy lies at the heart of faith-based marketing: Serve, don't sell.
Contact Suzette Standring: firstname.lastname@example.org She is syndicated with GateHouse News Service and is the award winning author of The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists. Visit www.readsuzette.com