The Creative Minds Behind "Faith-Based Marketing"
With 30+ years of marketing experience between them, Greg Stielstra and Bob Hutchins know the Christian audience. They know it's not a huge analogous blob just waiting for the next Passion of the Christ film to appear in theaters. Their experience in music, film, and book marketing helped them understand the many facets of the Christian market, and from that understanding they wrote Faith-Based Marketing, which should be a textbook for anyone trying to reach Christian consumers.
Aha Moments It's a Relationship
We're All Pulling for the Same Goal What's Ahead?
Conduct Good Business and Respect My Faith
I began my conversation with them with an apology.
When I received the review copy of the book, my preconceived notion was that it was going to be a treatise on how to do "grassroots" marketing campaigns to get Christians to attend films, or buy books and gifts, etc., en masse. I was wrong.
Greg: We kind of tipped it around, didn't we? It's a discussion about how any business can speak effectively to Christians, and we're really speaking more to the WalMarts and General Motors of this world.
Exactly! I thought it was very interesting because the perspective I hear in the film business is that Christians are an underserved market. But it's not that they're underserved in terms of needing more products, but that they need to be reached in a different way. Why write the book, and what kind of response have you gotten so far?
Bob: For me, it's something that's been in the back of my head now for a few years. Greg and I were business acquaintances while he was at Zondervan and I was working on some projects with him for them. He moved to Franklin (Tennessee), and so we've gotten to be friends and business colleagues.
We're both marketers, so we're always talking about ideas and stuff. Greg had an idea for a book that was titled a little different than what it ended up being. I told him that I resonated with that because nobody has written a book on what we do. With thirty-plus years of marketing to the faith community, and what we've learned about the Christian mindset and what it entails, nobody's written a book that explores that.
We believe, like we said in our book, that it's the world's largest niche. Not that there aren't a lot of products, a lot of them bad and a lot of them good, but that as a whole, media in general, both Christian and non-Christian, doesn't fully grasp the mindset and values and how to speak and how to target the 140 million people that are in worship services every Sunday. Not that they're any different, but there are a lot of differences.
Greg: I'd also say that Bob and I were in unique positions in that we'd both worked on products that demonstrated the incredible opportunity when you spoke correctly to the Christian audience. Bob worked on The Passion of the Christ and I was very involved as marketing director for The Purpose Driven Life. Because we'd also worked on other projects, we knew the potential of the Christian market and we knew how little most businesses were thinking about them.
If we could just introduce regular business people to the size of that opportunity, and teach them how to respect the Christians with their message, we saw an opportunity to reconcile the faith and business communities, and we couldn't pass that up, even though it meant a lot of work.
What kind of response have you received from business people? Are they experiencing Aha moments?
Bob: I think that's the best reaction we've gotten yet. There have been people experiencing Aha moments. One on level, the businessmen that says, "Finally, someone has written a book about this market and you've opened my eyes to it."
I've gotten several calls, even this past couple of weeks, from businessmen who aren't Christians. Maybe they're Jewish or don't go to church. But they've called and said, "Hey, man, I love your book." That's great to hear.
I had one guy call, a Jewish businessman down in Florida, who said he loved the book so much he bought two copies and is giving them to his son in college because he thinks they need to read this from a marketing perspective.
The other Aha moment we didn't really expect was from Christians who were reading it, either small businessmen or consumers, who said, "Wow! Is that what the public and media really think about us?"
Greg: I've also encountered a third, which is a handful of people who are saying, "This is the message I've been trying to tell others. Your book does it more succinctly."
In November, I'll speak to the World Religious Travel Association. The travel industry is gigantic, and there's a smaller subset within it that recognized the opportunity to craft vacations and travel opportunities specifically for Christians, and it's a glowing market.
I resonate with the third Aha, because I've realized how tightly defined the Christian consumer has become, and I keep having conversations with people about not treating all Christians the same and trying to reach them with the same methods.
Greg: You can count the number of things Christians have in common on one hand, and that's probably good. Most of them are laid out in the Apostles' Creed. If your movie is about the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, then congratulations. You've just won the right to speak to the entire Christian market.
Even believers tend to think that if it works for them, it's going to work for all Christians.
Bob: Yes. That's one of the other things we've run into is that so many Christian businessmen aren't good marketers and don't know how to market smart. That's true with small businesses across the board. What we try to convey in the book is that marketing, at its very simplest definition, is about good communication. And good communication is not only about speaking, but listening and hearing what your target or consumer is saying and understanding and respecting the beliefs and the uniqueness of who they are and what they believe and what they do.
When it comes to marketing to the Christian, whether secular or Christian businessman, what it comes down to is respecting the beliefs and where they are. It's not rocket science, but it's really keep listening and then marketing with your sales and advertising in a respectful manner to their beliefs.
Greg: To build on Bob's point, the best communication happens in a relationship. I think way too many marketers want to market from long distance. They want to be insulated from the people they're trying to speak to, so they're going to buy ads on media and hope the ads do all the heavy lifting. But that's not the most effective way. The most effective way is build a relationship and understand what the other person really wants and needs, and then to set your offer in that context. And you can't do that remotely.
You have to get your hands dirty. You have to go meet some of these people. And let's face it, you don't have to. But if you want to be successful, you have to. Fortunately, the digital technologies we have today make it easier to more effectively connect with people than at any point in history. We can know more about them and remove those layers of insulation that mass media put into place.
I think the lack of respect is something that I see most often in marketing to Christian consumers.
Greg: It's hard to respect people you don't understand because you have no idea when you're offending them. Step 1 is to understand your audience, and we hope our book is a first step in that process. Hopefully that's not where it ends.
If we've done our job, the reader will be convinced upon putting the book down that they need to take some Christians to lunch. Maybe a pastor or two to get a one on one perspective which will help them immeasurably with that one person but help them quite a bit with every other believer.
What was a revelation to me was the layer of nuance that your book exposed. It made me consider even the denominational things that often divide us and we want to minimize. But your position is that we should respect them and not try to avoid them.
Greg: A lot of times people look at those differences and they assume that Christianity is comprised of a whole lot of different teams. I think what's probably truer is that we're like individuals on the same team. Each of us have our own little quirks, but we're all pulling together for the same goal.
Could you each talk about your backgrounds and at what point you recognized the uniqueness of this information?
Bob: Back in about 1993, I started working for a start-up in South Florida called the Christian Interactive Network. Prior to that, I had experience working for non-profits and ministries, and really thought I would go into the ministry full-time one day. I came into contact with a guy named Greg Darby and he started this network.
It was before the days of browsers on the worldwide web. It was more of CompuServe and Prodigy, which were the first introductions to the internet for most people. They were online services and AOL was just getting started. Of the three, CompuServe was the largest. With this Christian Interactive Network, Greg had 12 forums on CompuServe and they were mostly text-based environments. You could do webchats, put documents online, and that was about the extent of it.
We were really the first online digital organization to work with large scale ministries and organizations. We had organizations like Campus Crusade and Prison Fellowship. We'd go to conferences and to the CBA (Christian Booksellers' Association – the Christian Retail organization) or GMA (Gospel Music Association) conventions, the large Christian meetings of commerce. We'd have booths there, and people would come by and scratch their heads because we were on the leading edge. We'd say, "Let us show you the internet superhighway, what it is, what we have, and why you need to be on it, and show you where things are going."
It was a fun time, and from there I did a lot of things with technology. From there, I went into the entertainment industry and moved up to Nashville in 1998. Shortly before the end of 2000, I started BuzzPlant. I took a lot of the things I'd learned and applied them to the Christian music business. I'd been in the business for a while so I had a lot of contacts, and still do. We grew from there.
Echoing Greg's comments earlier, one thing I'd always believed was that the Internet isn't a mass marketing tool, it's a direct marketing tool. It's about building relationships with people, and I don't know of any better tool to do that than digital means. Even when I started BuzzPlant, that was my approach. We continued to grow to what we are now, helping various clients to reach out through word of mouth and digital formats, specifically in the area of faith and family products.
Greg: My marketing history is pretty simple. I took a job in 1991 as a publicist for Zondervan, booking interviews for authors on TV talk shows. I moved up into marketing and one of the real eye-opening forces for me was seeing the general market stores like WalMart, Sam's Club and Costco try selling Christian books to their customers. To their surprise, those products sold like crazy through their stores. It was eye-opening to those retailers to discover how many of the people walking the aisles of their stores were Christians, and they had no idea until they tried selling those products.
I spent 14 years at Zondervan and during that period of time was the marketing director for The Purpose Driven Life, which became a phenomenal success. It set all kinds of best-seller records and I think it opened the eyes of the business world to the kinds of opportunities in this market.
I moved to Nashville in 2005 and spent a couple of years in marketing with Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Does working within a Christian industry for so long insulate you and put you in a tower where you don't know what's going on in the rest of the world?
Greg: I think the reverse is true. If you spend an extended time in mainstream marketing, you'd be oblivious to the size of the Christian community. But when you work in Christian marketing, you are also exposed to the rest of the world's marketing, so you have an understanding of both. It would be very hard for someone who didn't grow up in Christian marketing to see both sides of that coin.
With the length of time you've been in marketing, you've seen it progress from heavily print and radio/TV orientation to the explosion of online and digital media. What do you see in the future?
Greg: I've thought a great deal about that question, and I think it requires a bit of historical perspective. I think you can divide the history of marketing into three periods.
In what I call the "historical" period, marketing meant the buyer and seller were face to face and the conversation was mostly about people and their issues. "Hey Greg, how are you today?" "Well, I've got a problem." "Hey, I've got a gizmo that will solve that problem." "Great. Thanks." And they got my business.
The mass media is the second period. The seller got a megaphone and began to shout to thousands of people, but the buyer can't talk back. So what was a dialog becomes a monologue. What was once a conversation about people and their problems becomes a speech about products. That lasted through the year 2000 approximately, when this incredible rise of digital technology allows us to connect with each other.
For most of the 20th century, we could consume radio and television for free. Magazines and newspapers were cheap. But if I wanted to talk with you, I could write you a letter, I could send you a telegram or call you on the phone, but if you lived across town it was long distance and cost $2 per minute. So we were penalized for connecting with each other but rewarded for consuming mass media.
Now that situation is reversed. I can videoconference with my sister in Prague through Skype for free. But I pay $75 per month for digital TV so I can watch my local and national news.
So when we're well connected with mass media but poorly connected to each other, people tend to organize by proximity into communities of convenience. You're unable to find exactly the programming or people that match your interests, so you settle for those that are physically near. So in the 1950s your best friend was probably also your next-door neighbor.
But now the Internet makes it possible for us to find and connect with the content and people that share our interests. So our relationships are no longer defined by geography but affinity. What are you interested in? That's a gigantic difference.
The problem I see with Web 2.0 and all these social tools is that brands keep going to the dinner parties but they're bringing their megaphones. Leave the megaphone at home! You're welcome at the dinner party, but now it's about relationships again. Other people get to do some talking too, and you get to do some listening as a brand. So now it's an ebb and flow of conversation between many.
Earlier, you mentioned attending CBA and GMA events. Are Christian retailers doing a good job of reaching Christian consumers?
Greg: Mainstream businesses are usually led by smart businessmen who are just ignoring a segment of their consumers. What I see in a lot of CBA stores is that they think they don't have to be good businesspeople because they are Christians.
What Bob and I are saying is that you have to do both. Just because you're a believer, that isn't an excuse for not having an excellent product or service. People who want to hang their hat on faith without delivering the rest of the package are producing what I call "God-awful" products.
People who run a really tight business but want to ignore my faith are missing and opportunity to develop an even deeper relationship with me as a customer.
Bob: And the Christian businesses that are doing well and thriving despite the economy are building strong affinities and relationships. They're rewarding customers and building relationships so that the Christian consumer continues to be loyal and go there before they go to WalMart or other places. And it's not necessarily because they have a better price. It's because they've built a strong relationship with smart marketing.
You can't just throw out Christian products and think that because it's Christian, people will naturally come and buy the products. Christians are just like everyone else; they're going to go where they get the best deal, where they're treated well, and where they feel like they have a brand affinity. For many people, more and more, it's becoming the big stores because of the smart marketing.
Greg: If you're a Christian retailer, it's not enough to say it. Act like it. We use the example of Chuck Wallington and Christian Supply, and I think he's a good example of a Christian retailer who, in addition to having faith himself, is really living it by the way he treats his customers. You'll see that paid big dividends when he found himself in a fix.
A lot of the marketing advice I've seen lately for Christian retailers is fear-based. "If you don't do this, you'll lose your customers."
Greg: Bob and I have said that every Christian boycott is really a plea for faith-based marketing, but it happened too late. A boycott is really saying, "You offended our sensibilities, and we're going to teach you a lesson by withholding our business. And because there are an awful lot of us, that's going to hurt."
If you express that positively, it's faith-based marketing. It's building relationships with those businesses to say, "There are a lot of us, and I think you'll really benefit if you understand us better and gear your brand to us."
How much different, how much better would the world be if the Christians reached out to business people by speaking their language and saying, "Here's how you can improve the health of your business by paying attention to what matters to me – my faith in Jesus Christ."
Bob: And what businesses, I think, are scared of, is the whole political correctness thing. They don't want to be exclusionary. One of the points we make in the book is that businesses are in the business of making money and they shouldn't apologize for that. They're not in the business of evangelizing.
As Christians, it is our job to be evangelists and do the things we're called to do, but we shouldn't expect business to be something they're not, and vice versa. We're not telling businesses they have to display a cross or be exclusionary. But what they have to do is respect those beliefs. As a result, what happens many times in secular businesses or secular markets, is that for fear of being thought exclusionary to one religion, they ignore 40 – 50% of their customer base so they don't offend the .01% of people who might actually have a problem with the Christmas tree or respecting a day of the week or family values.
That's bad business. It's not smart.
Greg: It's also ironic, because businesses make these kinds of decisions all the time without blinking an eye. Think about the last time you went into a clothing store and found a size XXXXXL. You don't, and you don't because they don't have that many customers that size. It doesn't make good business sense to carry a lot of it. You will find a lot of mediums and larges because the bulk of their customers wear those sizes.
If you think in terms of faith sensibilities, wouldn't it make sense to have some of the products and services that we Christians wear, or use, on your shelf and not feel bad that you don't have some of the less-demanded products. It's just good business.
You mentioned family values earlier, and ignoring family values also ignores the fact that even those who don't self-identify as Christians are people who have strong family values.
Greg: 77% of the U.S. population self-identifies as Christians when you ask their religious affiliation. Are those people in church every week? A lot aren't, but share the same kind of moral sensibilities that Christians have.
You're not going to find very many customers who will say, "I refuse to do business with you because you didn't have enough foul language and nudity in your store." No one's going to say that, so the risks of pleasing this gigantic Christian population are minute, so you might as well go for it.
Bob: To give you a real-life example, Greg and I were in New York in December doing some television interviews on this topic for MSNBC around Christmas time. We were in the green room and there were a couple of older gentlemen sitting. One was Jewish. We brought up our point that businesses are making bad business decisions not to recognize Christmas.
One of the gentlemen, who was obviously not a Christian, said, "You know, I always wondered why businesses do that. I'm Jewish and it doesn't offend me. It's a nationally recognized holiday. What are those businesses thinking? My kid loves Santa Claus and we have a Christmas tree. I don't have a problem with it. I think businesses really fear that for some reason, there are more people offended by it than there really are. It's kind of like the monster in the closet that doesn't really exist."
Greg: Fortunately, there's nothing like a recession that helps them overcome those fears. When business is good, you might be able to entertain these false fears, but when it's bad, you need every bit of business you can get, so now would be a good time for them to learn that lesson.