Fowl pray: Tyson gets religion

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Tyson Foods wants people to have a wing and a prayer.

The chicken, beef and pork marketer recently began offering free downloadable prayer booklets on its Web site with mealtime words of thanks expressed across a variety of faiths, from Christian to Muslim. The move is seen as one that could become more common as marketers position themselves as faith friendly to connect with spiritual Americans.

What started out as the internal manifestation of Tyson's mission statement-a set of core values that includes "striving to be a faith-friendly company...and to honor God..."-has over the last few years morphed into placing 128 part-time chaplains in 78 plants across the country and, now, the external marketing initiative to play a part in mealtime prayer.

"There is a broader trend among bigger businesses to be faith-friendly employers, acknowledging that employees don't want to leave their soul in the parking lot," said David Miller, director of the Yale Divinity School's Center for Faith and Culture and a professor of business ethics.

Given that 95% of Americans believe in some sort of higher being and identify at some level with a faith, Mr. Miller said, a logical extension of that internal strategy is to reach out as well to consumers with a similarly faith-friendly message, "being careful, of course, not to trade on religion to sell more product, but expressing faith-friendly values in a gentle, low-key way."

A decade ago, Mr. Miller said, consumers would have said efforts such as prayer booklets have no place in the public arena, "but people don't compartmentalize anymore, they want to be who they are 24/7."

And Tyson is banking on those more openly religious folks appreciating the company's recognition of who they are.

"People are not just buying our products, they're buying us and they're spending more and more time looking on the Internet and elsewhere to find out, `what does this company stand for,' " said Bob Corscadden, Tyson's Chief Marketing Officer. Consumers researching Tyson are likely to find on the Net a chronicle of Tyson's long history of accusations of labor violations and illegal political gifts. So a little religion couldn't hurt.

Risky

Tyson has been developing the Giving Thanks at Mealtime booklets (roughly 25,000 have been sent out since the program's kickoff in late August) for the past two years, taking its time with consumer research and working with Mr. Miller and others to determine that prayer books would indeed please rather than put off would-be purchasers. Although it has looked to tie to some faith-based organizations, "teaming with any one religious group could alienate other groups. It's a sticky wicket," Mr. Corscadden said.

Even the nondenominational efforts strike some as risky. "It's a tough line they're walking not to become a preacher or provide religious services. They don't want to appear holier-than-thou," said Prudential Securities analyst John McMillin.

Especially since Chairman-CEO John Tyson is known to have battled against drug and alcohol addiction before becoming a born-again Christian. Mr. Corscadden acknowledged that Tyson's own core values clearly stress the idea of striving to do better despite making some mistakes along the way.

Tyson has no plans to use direct faith-based efforts for its traditional advertising in the near future. But its ongoing "Powered by Tyson" campaign is based on a larger brand promise of proudly powering the world that rose directly out of Mr. Tyson's Christian values in addition to the idea of protein as power, according to Craig Bamsey, director-business strategy at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve.

Ms. Popcorn, whose group developed the "powering the world" strategy for Tyson, firmly believes that success for food companies in the future rests on selling their ideologies as much as their food. "It's a very different marketplace than it used to be and for a lot of people, seeing companies express their faith openly is a huge positive," Mr. Bamsey said.

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