Marketing religion can encourage a leap of faith, but should still follow brand boundaries

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.

Making going to church seem cool is one thing, but should old school evangelism still be allowed?

The latest addition to the UK fast fashion scene, Forever 21, is run by a deeply Christian family who is so attached to their religion that the shortcut to the biblical passage John 3:16 is printed on every plastic bag that accompanies a purchase.

But as the brand’s marketing manager Linda Chang points out, Forever 21 is not about selling religion with polyester jumpsuits and plastic cocktail rings – the bag is “simply a statement of faith”. It’s not as if staff at the tills are also preaching this message, and anyone intrigued by the slogan can look at up and if it inspires them, then more power to them.

As Forever 21 launched in London this week and this little fact was discussed across the Marketing Week desk, it got me thinking about religion and how it is “marketed” today.

Most of the time, you’re born into it, but as service attendance rates continue to decline, I don’t blame the world’s religions for turning to converts to stay afloat, much like today’s sales-led organisation look for purchase conversions.

Those orange-clad Hare Krishnas on Oxford Street are just slightly less annoying than the charity ambassadors/chuggers that do everything in their power to halt your journey. The Hare Krishnas, while essentially trying to do the same thing by selling you one of their books, are pretty easy to avoid and at the same time bring some cheer to good old Oxford Street when they launch into their regular chanting and tambourine shaking.

Scientology is the king of religion branding, using the high profile celebrities it attracts as its face, giving it glamour and mystique. You can even find advertising agencies dedicated to “faith marketing”, and I found a 259-page PDF online entitled “Brands of Faith” discussing “marketing religion in a commercial age”.

I attended an IT conference this year where a representative from the Catholic Church, dressed in complete robes, spoke about the church’s IT strategy and moves it has made to make its website more user friendly and provide the kind of content people are looking for. Yes folks, the church is online, and social. The Vatican is even on Twitter and has 70,550 followers when I looked just now. The power of Brand Pope managed to pack London’s parks and streets during his visit early this year.

Well done to the Catholic Church on employing such modern day practices to stay in touch with its global flock. But the reluctance of the Christian movement as a whole to let go of some archaic practices baffles me when it comes to spreading its “brand awareness”.

The fact that the activities of missionaries, whose goal it is to convert people to the Christian faith, still go on is bewildering. There is an episode in Michael Palin’s 2002 series Sahara where a Christian missionary in Mali talks enthusiastically of her life’s work to convert local Muslim people.

All over the world are missionaries trying to grab more market share for their brands. I recognise the role they play in supporting developing countries, and giving direction and perhaps even a place to belong to people who don’t subscribe to a particular faith. I welcome initiatives such as the Catholic Church’s new IT programme so people who want information about a religion can get everything they need, as well as the use of social media and PR to spread the good word.

But aggressively pushing a view onto someone who already practices a faith and attempting to snatch them from Allah to Jesus is simply wrong – especially when religious conflicts are still claiming lives today, as seen in the African region of Sudan where tensions between Christians and Muslims are responsible for ongoing political instability.

Religions with thousands of years of heritage and culture should rightly be using whatever tools they can to retain and grow their followings. Like brands they should be looking for the right market and the right target audience. But unlike brands, other faiths shouldn’t be seen as competitors, with more recruits adding to a bankable bottom line. Unfortunately this belief still exists.