Michael Baker describes and defines marketing strategy as a process that can allow an organization to concentrate it’s limited resources on the greatest opportunities to increase sales and achieve a sustainable competitive advantage (2008). Limited is not usually how one would typically describe a national organizations marketing budgets, but it does shed a bit of light on how they coordinate and plan their marketing efforts. Marketing strategy determines an organization’s choice of target markets, their positioning within the marketplace, marketing mix, and obviously the allocation of resources. When a strategy is effective it will determine how the organization will successfully engage it’s customers, audience, prospects, and competitors in the market place.
What does a strategy look like when one of those organizations is an international religion, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? The purpose of this article is not to engage in a doctrinal debate, nor does it intend to cast any negative light on the LDS Church or Mormons in general, rather this article exists solely to rationally present the marketing tools, messages and mix that the LDS Church has and is now employing to strengthen it’s perception among non-Mormons and perhaps even it’s own membership.
According to a 1996 interview with the late LDS President, Gordon B. Hinckley, by CBS’s 60 Minutes, the LDS/Mormon Church hired a well known Jewish firm to handle their marketing effort, as confirmed by Mike Wallace in the following statement:
Gordon Hinckley prefers not to talk about Jesus returning to Missouri…He says that those points miss the point. He wants to portray Mormons as mainstream, not extreme. And for that Hinckley has hired a Jewish-owned public relations firm. Mormons hiring Jews to help spread the word?
Despite the impression that 60 Minutes gives, this push to mainstream the LDS/Mormon Church was well underway in the mid-1990’s. It has been reported that this Jewish owned firm and others advised the Church that it was in their best interest to become more appealing to existing Protestants, Evangelicals, and Christians within the United States. This point was perhaps a valid one since according to the most recent study by Pew Public Forum for Religion, over 50% of their annual converts come from these mainstream Christian backgrounds. Richard and Joan Ostling noted this phenomenon in their 1999 book, Mormon America, writing, “Mormonism succeeds by building on a preexisting Christian culture and by being seen as an add-on, drawing converts through a form of syncretism. Mormonism flourishes best in settings with some prior Christianization.” By changing their “on-boarding” process, image, and message they would make it far easier for Protestants, Evangelicals, and Christians to accept the LDS Church, tenets, and better assimilate into the culture.
This attempt to become more pleasing to mainstream Christians was beginning to take shape as early as the early to mid 1980’s. For example in 1988 a survey was sent out to recent LDS converts and new temple going members asking about their experiences doing genealogical and temple work. Below is a sample of this survey:
Survey question 28: For a person who had been through the endowment ritual, “did you feel spiritually uplifted by the experience?” and “was the experience unpleasant?” and “were you confused by what happened?”
Survey question 29: ”Briefly describe how you felt after receiving your own endowment.”
Survey question 37-k: ”Did you find it hard to go to the temple?”
Survey question 39-b: ”have you ever fallen asleep during sessions?”
Survey questions 70-a and 70-b: ”Do you believe the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a prophet of God?” ”Do you believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church on the earth?”
Survey question 77-g: ”Do you have any doubts about specific LDS doctrines and teachings?”
A page at the end of the Survey was left blank in case the person had “any additional things to write about your feelings or activities in temple or genealogical work…”
It is not incredibly surprising that a short time later the more uncomfortable and controversial parts of their temple ceremony, and perhaps the most difficult parts for former Protestants, Evangelicals, and Christians to participate in, were redacted and discontinued, such as:
- Protestant minister paid by Lucifer to preach false doctrine was eliminated.
- All penalties (and gestures like throat slashing, chest slashing and bowel slashing) were eliminated.
- Women’s promise to be obedient to husbands was modified.
- The intimate position at the veil (foot to foot, knee to knee, breast to breast, hand on shoulder and mouth to ear) was eliminated.
- The strange words “Pay Lay Ale” (meaning “Oh God hear the words of my mouth”) were eliminated.
At this point I am sure you are asking, what does this have to do with marketing the LDS/Mormon Church and belief system? It all plays a significant role in the LDS Church’s “marketing mix.” This term, Marketing Mix, was one coined by Neil Borden in 1953, and later refined in 1960, by E. Jerome McCarthy. Marketing mix involves the 4 P’s, which are: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Once again, you are most likely asking what do these 4 P’s have to do with a religion or the Mormon faith? Great question!
The “product” that the LDS/Mormon Church is attempting to “sell” is their core tenets, lifestyle, and culture. The “price” of this product is not money in the traditional sense, but rather what is the “investigator” or “prospective” Mormon going to have to sacrifice to become a member of the LDS/Mormon Church. The “place” of the LDS Church involves the image or perception of the product in the mind of consumers. The final P is “promotion” which encompasses, the total communications effort that an organization or marketer may use in the marketplace.
The changes that occurred within the LDS/Mormon Church in the 1980’s and 90’s was a clear attempt to correct some of the perceived shortcomings in their “product, place, and price.” The amendments and changes made to their missionaries’ scripting, logo, and production and distribution of new Christ-centered films, such as the Lamb of God, were a clear attempt to change their “place” and “promotion” in the their chosen marketplace. The changes made to the temple ceremonies, remodels of their church buildings that included more traditional “New England” style design, and greater emphasis on Jesus Christ provided a market correction to their “product” and “price.” By tweaking the product to appear friendlier to mainstream Christians the LDS Church essentially lowered the “price” one pays to become and remain a member of the LDS Church. These are all clear signs that the LDS Church saw a need to mainstream and “Christianize” for greater market appeal and potential. For example, if being a Mormon does not feel and appear quite so peculiar there is the potential for greater societal and social acceptance by non-Mormons, thereby making it easier for individuals to consider Mormonism.
The fourth P, promotion, has perhaps been one of the LDS/Mormon Church’s greatest strengths and at times their greatest weaknesses. Just about anyone who has turned on a television has seen a commercial for the LDS Church. There have been heartwarming commercials regarding families and family values. There have been commercials offering to give away a free Book of Mormons. As the mainstreaming of the LDS Church took place in the late 1990’s, there were then TV spots offering free copies of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. These commercials frequently featured a telephone number that would connect them to missionaries and church volunteers who would encourage a visit by the LDS missionaries to accompany their free book. Their ability to “promote” or market via the television was brilliant and largely unparalleled by other denominations at the time, which allowed them to raise considerable market awareness surrounding their “product.”
Most marketing observers would agree that the LDS Church’s greatest marketing weakness has been their lack of or late involvement with orchestrating their efforts on the Internet. It wasn’t until 2007 that LDS leadership began to openly address this area of need. While addressing Brigham Young University, LDS Apostle, M. Russell Ballard, stated, “We cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the Church teaches” (LDS, 2007). He further explains their intention, in 2007, was to employ a grassroots strategy, stating, “While some conversations have audiences in the thousands or even millions, most are much, much smaller. But all conversations have an impact on those who participate in them. Perceptions of the Church are established one conversation at a time” (LDS 2010). Based upon the recent and significant redesign and restructuring of their online marketing strategy, this grassroots concept must not have been working quite as well as anticipated.
Until recently, the LDS Church and it’s leadership has seemed content with allowing LDS bloggers, Latter-Day Saint apologists, and Brigham Young University based apologists to do most of their online marketing and discussions.
That has recently changed as the LDS/Mormon Church has launched a new and very different marketing campaign that is going to leverage both the Internet and Television. This new campaign ironically enough seems to take some cues from the Evangelical’s mega-church movements eschewing traditional religious imagery and typography for more modern and edgy graphic design, videography and typography. The LDS Church has redesigned their once missionary centric website, www.mormon.org, into a collection of hip videos and stories written and featuring the some of the more progressive Mormons available. The LDS “Church News” reports the following,
“…originally launched in 2001, was designed to help people of other faiths learn more about the Church’s doctrines and beliefs. The revamped site, that launched midnight, July 15, still carries on the same purpose, but has been changed to incorporate more member involvement — especially in missionary work.
“We’ve tried to really brighten the site itself,” said Ron Wilson, manager of Internet and marketing for the Church’s Missionary Department. “We did a lot of user research and tried to find what would work best”
Research shows it is through the interaction with members that many myths and misconceptions vanish. Becoming interactive “friends” with people throughout the world is one way members are sharing their beliefs from the comfort of their own homes” (Holman, 2010).
This site and these ads are seeking to further refine both the “product,” “place,” and “price” of Mormonism by attempting to show the general public how cool, normal, and progressive the Mormon population and culture has become. To say this is surprising from an organization as conservative as the LDS Church is an understatement. Here are some examples of what is featured on the new site:
Meet Rose: A painting teacher warned Rose that she was throwing away a promising career as an artist by getting married. A husband, four kids, a beautiful home and a remarkable body of work beg to differ. Rose’s spirituality infuses her work as an artist and a mother.
Meet Emily & Family: He does PR for a UN foundation. She’s a global public health advocate. He speaks French, Italian, Spanish, Armenian and English. Her work helps people in 35 countries. He’s illustrious. She’s unstoppable. They have 3 kids. Their life is crazy, and they love it.
Meet Chris: A husband, a father, a creative director at the US Library of Congress, a cyclist, a photographer, and a Mormon. Chris balances work, family and fun as gracefully as he rides his bike through Washington, DC.
The campaign, while certainly groundbreaking and seeks to dispel some longstanding myths and perception of members, is also drawing the ire of some within the LDS faith and blogosphere. ABC News recently interviewed LDS blogger and popular host of “Mormon Stories,” John Delhin, stating:
“I think it’s fabulous. I think it represents in many ways the best impulses of the Mormon people,’ Dehlin says. ‘It represents tolerance. It represents multiculturalism. It represents an empowerment of women, inclusivity.'”
The report goes on: “But Dehlin says the ads do not reflect Mormon doctrine and teachings when it comes to race, gender equality and individualism. For example, he says, ‘the husband is supposed to work and the mom is supposed to stay home and take care of the kids. There’s a difference between what the prophets teach us and what this PR campaign is holding up.'”
Some of the church’s critics have expressed some frustration, noting that the message of the campaign does not necessarily correlate with the current Mormon experience at the local level in most cases. Holly Welker, of the Huffington Post, expressed similar sentiments, writing,
“I’ve long appreciated the complexity of Mormon character and the uniqueness of individual Mormons, and I’m totally down with a project to reveal that to the rest of the world. I just wish the church hadn’t spent the last three decades encouraging, if not demanding, homogeneity and blandness — or, to use the official LDS term for the virtue of uniformity, correlation.
So the new ads, challenging the effects of correlation, are overdue. However, they’re not perfect. First, while profiles might feature hipsters with trendy clothes, the opinions and beliefs in a profile must be completely orthodox and thoroughly respectful, or it will be rejected by the site.
Second, as ECS of Feminist Mormon Housewives notes, there’s a bait and switch going on in the profiles of women: most featured profiles showcase “women with small children who choose to work outside the home in demanding careers,” which is not the ideal Mormon women are told to aspire to — instead, they’re encouraged to be stay-at-home-moms whenever possible. ECS concludes that if the church doesn’t address the discord between what it tells its own members Mormon families should be like, and what it tells the rest of the world Mormon families are like, then “this PR campaign is disingenuous at best, and just plain gross, at worst.”
According to Deseret News, in addition to the online component, “The LDS Church recently launched an advertising campaign in nine U.S. markets, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis; Baton Rouge, La.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Rochester, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Oklahoma City; Tucson, Ariz.; and Jacksonville, Fla. The campaign includes ads on television, radio, billboards, bus platforms and the interior of transit vehicles” (Campbell 2010). Additionally, University of Central Oklahoma professor Sandra Martin noted that while the ads won’t accomplish everything the church seeks to do, “People are talking about it. They’ve been able to cut through the clutter which is the first step to get people to listen” (Campbell 2010).
These ads are a significant departure in another respect; they are individual rather than institutional. For example, in times past the advertising done by the church was meant to represent the whole church and it‘s institutional culture and beliefs. The LDS Director of Media, Scott Swofford explains, “We have not made an effort to only show famous or perfect people. You are going to see warts in this campaign, and people aren’t used to that in Latter-day Saint communication and hope they will be patient and understand we are all fellow strugglers trying to align ourselves with the truth.” Does this new approach to “message” and “promotion” equate to a greater understanding and “place” thereby generating demand for the “product?”
Several events have precipitated and necessitated this new advertising approach. Consider the events of the last three years such as the failed Romney candidacy for president and the brutal fights for traditional marriage in California, Wyoming, and Massachusetts. Most would consider these politically charged events to be largely failures from a public relations perspective for the LDS Church. The mainstream press vilified the Church, it’s leadership, and often times the membership, as being closed minded white-racist-homophobes. The voting public in the Southeast and Midwest turned out in to vote for Evangelical governor Mike Huckabee while making their outrage and displeasure with Mitt Romney’s membership in the LDS Church, known to the national media. After four years of this rhetoric most would agree that there was significant need for a new marketing message regarding who and what the Mormon faith is all about.
Despite their current efforts, what is truly puzzling is that the LDS Church knew as early as 2007 that it was going to be facing greater scrutiny and pressure due to the coming political initiatives and Mormon candidates. The following quote from Deseret News demonstrates the fact that they did acknowledge the challenge that Romney and Proposition 8 in California could pose to the public’s perceptions of Mormon and yet they are only now modifying their strategy.
“We have to walk a very fine line to stay away from political issues,” said Michael Otterson, Media Relations Director for the 12.6 million-member worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “But it is clear that the profile of the church will be raised during this (campaign) period. All of the things that are going on will serve as catalysts to raise questions about us and who we really are.”
As you can clearly see the marketing approaches and strategies employed by the LDS/Mormon Church are varied. It will be interesting to watch the affect and effectiveness of this most recent initiative. Will it have an affect in terms of the LDS Church’s product, place, price and promotion? It is interesting to note that the LDS Church has made the decision to abandon a focus on doctrine in it’s advertising instead focusing more on the people and culture. This is similar to the approach that the Protestant/Christian/Evangelical community has chosen to embrace over the last 15 years with limited long-term success at retaining members. There is currently a backlash underway within the Evangelical community as Christians decry the loss of deep doctrine in favor of greater emphasis on cultural and social initiatives and acceptance. Only time will reveal the overall effectiveness of this most recent “I am Mormon” campaign.
Ostling, R. & Ostling, J. (1999). Mormon America: The Power And The Promise. HarperOne; 1st edition.
Baker, M. (2008). The Strategic Marketing Plan Audit 2008. ISBN 1902433998. p.3
(2007). Apostle Urges Students to Use New Media. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Newsroom. Retrieved on: August 20, 2010 From: http://lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/apostle-urges-students-to-use-new-media
Welker, H. (2010). Mormon PR Campaign: Do Good Individuals Equal A Good Church? The Huffington Post. Retrieved on: August 21, 2010 From: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/holly-welker/mormon-pr-campaign-good-m_b_690383.html
Campbell, J. (2010). Mormon Media Observer: Ad campaign gets mixed reviews. Deseret News: Mormon Times. Retrieved on: August 25, 2010. From: http://www.mormontimes.com/article/16679/Mormon-Media-Observer-Ad-campaign-gets-mixed-reviews
Holman, M. (2010). A New Mormon.org. Church News. Retreived on: August 25, 2010. From: http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/59596/A-new-Mormonorg.html