When Evangelism Is the Ad Model

Mara Einstein's 'Brands of Faith' Eyes Movement as Product with a Shelf Life

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Is the evangelical movement suffering a midlife crisis? Or, for those with a more brand-centric world view: Is evangelism entering the "mature" stage of its brand life cycle?

The New York Times Magazine begged the question, "End Times for Evangelicals?" in an October 2007 cover story that discredited the idea of a monolithic evangelical movement. With Sen. John McCain's resurgence in the primaries, the political presence of evangelicals certainly looks to be on the wane.

Then there's "Red Letter Christians," a new book that argues the evangelical movement needs a progressive agenda and must end its obsession with abortion and homosexuality.

As critics begin to chip away at the evangelical brand, does that mean evangelicals are no longer immune -- just like once-popular brands -- to the dreaded growth plateau that follows a boom?

If you're looking for a little context on the evangelical movement's brand life cycle, "Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age" is a particularly timely read. Author Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College, offers an unbeatable edge to her research: time in the marketing industry trenches. Her resume lists senior posts at MTV Networks and NBC, and agency stints at the likes of DDB and Backer Spielvogel Bates, where she worked on accounts including Dole Foods and Miller Lite.

Be sure to put aside any religious sensitivities before diving in: Ms. Einstein calls religion a "commodity ... packaged and sold the same way as other marketed goods and services." Even so, it's a compelling subtext to the dramatic narrative of a brand in decline. Her theory behind the dismantling is simple: The evangelical movement is at risk of losing its "unique selling proposition" and its ability to "raise us above the market."

A handful of case studies document the rise of major faith brands, great reads for their objective commentary on cultural icons. (Ms. Einstein's attempt to define Oprah as a "faith brand" is a bit of a stretch, although the assessment that Oprah has, perhaps dangerously, blurred "the line between spirituality and therapy" is well taken.) In a chapter titled "Politics of Faith Brands," she links the Bush ascendancy to the takeover of the pulpit by branded preachers eschewing IRS regulations for subtle and coded endorsements of political candidates.

Despite the author's hand-wringing, corporate marketers stand to learn a thing or two about pushing product from "Brands of Faith," specifically viral and word-of-mouth efforts. The real gem of Ms. Einstein's text is an in-depth look at one of the most successful leaders of the evangelical pack: Rick Warren, whose spiritual guidebook, "The Purpose-Driven Life," is second only to the Bible as the best-selling hardcover of all time.

Similar to the way Sam Walton figured out where to plop Wal-Mart stores, Mr. Warren planted his Saddleback Church in the late 1970s based on demographic and census data citing the "least churched" regions of the U.S. He isolated Orange County, Calif., one of the fastest-growing areas in the country at that time. He went door-to-door, surveying only those who didn't attend church regularly. Instead of stealing parishioners, he'd make more. Mr. Warren's foray into e-mail marketing and focus groups is discussed in detail, as is the promotional network created for his first book, "The Purpose-Driven Church," a guide initially targeted to church leaders via a website, Pastors.com.

In exploring the symbiotic relationship between religion and marketing, Ms. Einstein highlights the irony that "marketers have learned their craft from religion -- turning diehard product users into evangelists, for example." Not surprisingly, she argues whether loyalists are just returning the favor. Is the burgeoning of evangelicals "simply a situation of religion re-assimilating what is rightfully theirs"?

True to her marketing origins, Ms. Einstein credits the ad industry for the rise of evangelism in the last decade: "Interactions with advertising have led us to expect certain things from marketers, specifically convenience and entertainment ... these expectations have migrated to the realm of spiritual practice." She likens the evangelical movement's success not to some historic spiritual awakening or God's hand at work, but to the use of secular marketing tactics. If spiritual hunger isn't driving people to the big-box style of worship, then eventually the religious consumer is "going to feel disappointed," as the author puts it.

If the ad model so strongly applies, then the evangelical movement is on the path to joining the ranks of JetBlue, Krispy Kreme and Kmart as a once-great brand.
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