While big companies such as Forever21 and In-N-Out Burger quietly stamp Bible verse John 3:16 on the bottom of their bags and cups, other companies are more outward in their devotion. But when it comes to integrating faith into your branding or business, it often can be a tricky line to toe.
Regardless of the size of the company, faith-based marketing can help reach an expansive Christian demographic with an estimated purchasing power of around $5.1 trillion a year.
“One of the things that makes the faith-based market unique is they gather weekly as a group to share and fellowship with each other,” said Greg Stielstra, founder of PyroMarketing, a social media marketing agency in Franklin, Tenn.
That means the opportunity for information to spread, including product endorsements, is huge, particularly since people trust recommendations of peers with similar interests. “For Christians in America, their faith in Jesus Christ is a defining characteristic, which makes word of mouth in that community more powerful than it would be for other communities,” Stielstra added.
Paul Jankowski, CEO of Access Brand Strategies and author of How to Speak American: Building Brands in the New Heartland, agreed that faith as a core value in many Americans’ lives cannot be understated.
“Be cognizant of the role of faith, specifically, may play in the lives of this massive consumer group,” he said.
Stielstra marketed for Christian publications for 17 years, including the wildly-successful promotion of The Purpose Driven Life. He is also the co-author of Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide to Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers.
Stielstra attributed the success of The Purpose Driven Life, which is the fastest-selling hardcover book in American history, to the tightness of the faith-based community.
“By lighting that fuse in a number of key places, it was possible to reach almost everyone because that community is so tight.”
A 40-day marketing campaign for the book included having ministers preach six consecutive sermons about the book, with worshippers reading a chapter a day for 40 days. Readers were given the entire book, instead of just a sampling, and they would meet once a week to discuss it. Word of the book spread like wildfire through faith-based communities.
“It created an army of 400,000 customer evangelists who had a deep familiarity and a positive experience with the book, and that turned into irrepressible word of mouth,” Stielstra said. “It wasn’t valuing them for their purchase potential. What it unleashed was their promotional potential.”
Christian Brothers Automotive is proof of that promotional potential.
CEO Mark Carr founded the company in 1982 after another man from his church asked if he could help start an automotive repair service. Carr, who was working in graphic arts prior – and continued to for seven years before working on his auto service full time – named the company Christian Brothers Automotive because it was literally opened by two brothers in Christ. What started out as a single repair shop outside of Houston, has turned into an operation of 88 franchises in 11 states, with another 32 under construction or getting ready to open.
Some franchise locations have Bibles in the waiting rooms or lobbies, along with TIME magazine and other reading material. Some franchisees also place prayer request books in the lobby open to people of any faith.
“We’re not going to outwardly proselytize ... but we hope and pray that they feel the love of God when they come into our stores,” said Josh Wall, vice president of franchise development.
Although most franchisees are Christians, the company has never specifically focused its marketing efforts on faith-based consumers. It simply made sure to take good care of customers, who in turn, helped boost the customer base with word-of-mouth, referral-based marketing.
“We’re not targeting faith-based customers, per se,” Wall said. “What we’re doing … is just saying, ‘we want to be in a business that glorifies God in everything we do, by providing ethical and excellent automotive repair for our customers.’ That’s something that’s not lip service – that’s who we are.”
As Christian Brothers Automotive expanded, it began advertising on Christian and talk radio – an “incredibly valuable” medium for the faith-based market, according to Stielstra, because many of the stations are listener supported, forging a deep bond between the station and its listeners.
“Many listeners turn to it as safe programming … they have come to trust Christian radio as a sort of gatekeeper,” Stielstra said. “I think brands can use Christian radio effectively to make an introduction and to get the kind of credibility that would take years and millions of dollars to build any other way.”
But you won’t see any type of Christian or religious arts in any of Christian Brothers Automotive's ads.
“We don’t want to offend anyone or create a pre-conceived notion before they walk in the door,” Wall said.
When deciding a franchise location, Christian Brothers looks at demographics like number of people, income levels, traffic, as well as competitive forces like other independent auto repair shops in the area. Ethnic or religious makeup isn’t considered in choosing a location. Some of its strongest franchise locations are in areas dense with people who identify with Eastern religions, not Christianity, according to Wall.
“Overwhelmingly, I would say it typically doesn’t offend non-evangelical Christians because they just want to be taken care of very well. We service people of all different faith backgrounds."
As to how companies or brands can tap into the faith-based market, Stielstra recommends becoming a trusted name in churches, first and foremost. That may mean sitting down with local pastors and presenting your product and explaining how it can be beneficial to his or her congregation.
“Let them speak back to you. Pastors are shepherds of their flock and shepherds protect their flock,” Stielstra said. “If you show how your product is genuinely helpful, they would be a great consultant.”
When it comes to displaying your faith, it’s the personal preference of business owners as to just how much they display. Some say it’s good to find the right balance of showing “we’re one of you” – or “homophily,” meaning “love of the same” - but not beating people senseless with it.
“If you can identify yourself as being a Christian and that your business is guided by Christian principles, other Christians will want to reward you and give them your business,” Stielstra said. “Other businesses can win patronage by Christians by saying there are aligned with the same values – that’s stopping short of sharing your faith, but there are at least a certain set of standards by which we all adhere.”