What do you think, Greg?

The Purpose-Driven Life, The Passion of the Christ, and The Chronicles of Narnia are three global success stories shaped by effective marketing. Specifically, they were shaped by two effective marketers, Greg Stielstra and Bob Hutchins.

When I learned that Greg and Bob were writing a book called Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide to Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers, I had to know more.

Were they insiders leaking church information to the adman, or friends trying to redeem current marketing practices? Were they using their success to promote buying more stuff, or calling on businesses to love customers better?

In this fifth New Breed of Advertisers interview, you’ll find out why I support and complain about the book, and what Greg has to say about marketing as a Christian. Enjoy!

Greg Stielstra is the author of PyroMarketing and was a marketing executive at the world’s two largest Christian publishers, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. At Zondervan, Stielstra was marketing director for Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, the fastest selling hardcover in American history. Learn more at www.pyromarketing.com.

Bob Hutchins runs Buzzplant, an Internet marketing agency that targets the faith and family market. He was instrumental in online marketing campaigns for the Christian hit movies The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia. Learn more at www.buzzplant.com.


NBoA: Thanks for joining us here, Greg. What started Faith-Based Marketing and how did Bob come on board?

Greg: While working on the marketing for The Purpose-Driven Life and The Passion of the Christ, I noticed how their success had opened business’s eyes to the size and influence of the Christian market segment. I also saw how poorly equipped many business people were to effectively reach it.

What’s more, there were no books on the subject and precious few other resources to help. Mainstream media routinely misrepresents business people as crooks and Christians as kooks so I was convinced of the need for a book on the topic. That’s when I began writing an outline for a project called The Ten Commandments of Faith-Based Marketing.

Around the same time, Bob and a business associate, Beth Cathey, started an organization called The Faith-Based Marketing Association and held a Faith-Based Marketing Summit in Dallas that brought ministry and business leaders together.

I spoke on PyroMarketing at that event and, because Bob and I both live in Franklin, TN, it wasn’t long till we discussed collaborating on this book.

NBoA: And the rest is history, they say. Fascinating how our lives unfold.

In Chapter 6, “Serve, Don’t Sell,” you provide quite a few simple, local, personal, logical, natural examples of how a business can serve a local church. In fact, the chapter made me want to re-subtitle your book, Winning by Serving the Local Church. What’s your favorite connection example?

Greg: I’m a little leery when people talk about creating win-win partnerships because quite often they want both of the wins. Yet, the best collaborations really are those where every participant benefits. That’s why I love the serve-don’t-sell ideas we provided. They honestly help the business and the church. Here’s one of my favorites:

Youth Group Car Wash: Church youth groups often raise money for mission trips by holding parking lot car washes. Kids stand by the road waving cardboard signs while others wash cars with inadequate hoses, water, and suds. It’s inefficient and doesn’t generate as much money as it could. Meanwhile, owners of local automated car washes could enjoy getting extra business from that nearby church with a simple partnership.

We say, let the youth group use your automated car wash on Saturday from 8-noon and give them the profits earned during that period.

The church would encourage its members to support the youth group by going to your car wash Saturday morning and the youth could spend more time promoting the fund raiser throughout the community and wash more cars with less work.

I like this idea from a church perspective because it’s a more efficient version of something they already do--host car wash fund raisers. I like this idea from a business perspective because it gives people an actual experience with the car wash while creating goodwill for its owner among churchgoers.

NBoA: I heard an evangelist say, “We don’t serve people so we can convert them; we serve because we’ve been converted.” I suppose you could say the same about a marketing evangelist. But is it possible for marketers to see people as the bottom line and not as a means to an end?

Greg: Not only is it possible, it’s how things were for centuries and how, very soon, they will be again.

For most of history, markets were places where people gathered face-to-face. Buyers explained their needs. Sellers offered solutions. You still encounter a remnant of this era today when the store clerk asks, “May I help you?” The focus was on people and their needs first, and product solutions second.

Mass marketing rudely interrupted this market conversation from 1920 to 2000, give or take a few years. Mass media gave business a megaphone that allowed it to speak to millions of people at once, but prevented people from talking back. The conversation became a monologue. Instead of asking people what they needed, sellers used media to tell nameless masses what they were selling. This shifted marketing’s focus from people to products. It insulated business from its customers, dehumanized markets and transformed people into consumers. And it encouraged business to view people as a merely as a means to an end.

Fortunately, the digital revolution is transforming markets again. Not only does the Internet restore the conversation between buyers and sellers, it also enables buyers to talk with each other on a global scale. People can tell businesses what they want, what they need, and what they don’t like. The opportunities for dishonesty and exploitation which tempted some advertisers during the mass marketing era are less available. Business cannot lie because the crowd will immediately set the record straight.

The digital revolution wrested the megaphone from marketer’s hands. Business can no longer shout about itself over the crowd. Instead it must, once again, join the conversation by focusing on people, not products, and learn again to ask, “May I help you?”

NBoA: I like your optimism, Greg, and I see this transformation taking place. While I don’t have as much faith as you in consumers’ ability to discern what they really need, or, at least, how best to meet those needs, I do enjoy the growing interactivity with business, and look forward to advertisers being more honest.

A frequent theme in the book is encouraging this healthy relationship between marketers and consumers, something especially important in a volatile economy. We know money strains relationships, so what advice/warning would you give to marketers trying to connect with churches today?

Greg: I don’t agree that money strains relationships. Money is morally neutral. The Bible says that the love of money, not money itself, is the root of all evil, so it’s our attitude toward money that matters.

If we value money more than people, then that attitude will certainly strain relationships. However, if we put relationships first, then the money will take care of itself. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you get neither.” I think that insight applies to doing business with the church: Aim at serving people and you’ll get fair compensation thrown in. Aim at money and you’ll get neither.

NBoA: You also spend time debunking stereotypes, pushing businesses to get to know pastors and churches, explaining basic theology and church practice, and even providing instructions to non-churched readers on how to go to church (Chapter 5, “Meet and Greet”). These have practical, relationship-building value. Are they also your subversive way of getting folks to church?

Greg: I went to college to get an education and wound up meeting my wife.

NBoA: Enough said.

Early on you tell readers, “We won’t provide you with ways to exploit Christians….” I’m not convinced. Despite the good points I mentioned above, I think you cross the line at times with this promise. For example, regarding direct mail tips you say:

  • "Create a sense of urgency without sounding desperate ('Act now and receive this bonus gift!')," and
  • "Consider various graphic techniques to grab the reader’s eye: ‘handwritten’ notes in the margin…"

This is infomercial material, and if I were a pastor and knew this was your approach to serving my congregation, I’d never let your message in. Why the manipulative gimmicks?

Greg: There’s a difference between effective marketing and manipulation. Churches put their signs in front of the building rather than behind it because in front it more effectively communicates with passersby. Is that manipulation? Good design or handwritten letters make a person more likely to read and consider an offer, but in the end, each individual still makes his or her own choice. A free gift sweetens the pot for those who take fast action. It gives the buyer more value for their money which is hardly the “devious influence” that defines manipulation.

NBoA: But the…
(Speaking of manipulation, readers, you'll have to click here for Part 2 if you want to see where this conversation goes.)


Every Square Inch April 10, 2009 at 3:26 PM  

Sam - very nice interview. I like how you challenge Greg on a couple of points. Keep this up and you're going to get a reputation for being a tough interviewer!

Greg Stielstra April 13, 2009 at 10:41 AM  

Sam is tough, but fair.

I am glad Sam asked the questions he did because they are sure to be on other people's minds. I am also grateful that he honestly and intellectually engaged with the issue. He read the book. He thought about it. He considered it carefully, which I greatly respect.


Sam Van Eman April 14, 2009 at 3:45 PM  

ESI and Greg,
Thanks for the compliments and for reading!

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