Can a Marketing Campaign Advance A Religion’s Reputation?

The Mormon Church, formally the Church of Latter Day Saints, recently launched an advertising campaign with the purpose of changing its image among non-Mormons.  The timing couldn’t be better with The Book of Mormon debuting this year as a Broadway show, and the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination featuring not one, but two candidates of the Mormon faith.

In an interview with On the Media this weekend, Ron Wilson, senior manager for Internet and advertising communications for the Mormon Church, stated that timing for  the campaign and Mitt Romney’s presidential bid are purely coincidental.  “It just happens that we are running this campaign and politicians are in the news.  It’s the Mormon moment,” said Wilson.

Indeed it is.  Just last week, controversial comments made by a Texas pastor, a supporter of Texas governor and presidential candidate  Rick Perry, again inserted the issue of Romney’s faith into the forefront of the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, calling Mormonism a “cult.”  Unfortunately for the Mormon faith, many of the respondents to the church’s own market research conducted prior to the implementation of their advertising campaign, showed that many people in the U.S. found the religion to be weird or “cultish”, as the pastor put it.

The campaign, recently rolled out in a dozen U.S. cities and seven states, focuses on challenging these misconceptions versus providing an education on the ins and outs of the religion. Featuring bus and television ads, as well as YouTube videos, the campaign components attempt to caste Mormons as normal, everyday people who don’t practice polygamy (not all Mormons, anyway).  The campaign also includes a revised website where non-Mormons can connect with a virtual Mormon “friend”, since research showed that those who knew a Mormon did not have the negative perceptions held by those who did not know someone who was Mormon.

The Mormon Church is no novice at using social media and online technology.  There is a huge Mormon social media network designed to connect those of Mormon faith and the church has Twitter and Facebook accounts, a blog and a YouTube channel.  In fact, according to Avinesh Kaushik, analytics evangelist for Google, the Mormon Church is doing an exemplary job with Search Engine Optimization. In fact, they know it so well that Avinesh recommends looking at their strategies and following their lead.  During a speech at the 2010 SES Conference Expo, Avinesh used the Mormons website, www.lds.org, as an illustration on proper SEO strategies and techniques.

Regardless of how adept the church has been at using both traditional and social media techniques to spread its message to insiders, the question remains whether or not this campaign will be able to change its reputation amongst outsiders.

The Mormon Church is not the first religious-related movement to deploy traditional and social marketing tactics to change public opinion.  Living without Religion is an organization seeking to change the reputation of those who live well, without religion.  Begun in 2008, the national ad campaign — with the message that it is possible to live a fulfilling life without God — is expanding to Grand Rapids, MI; Niagara Falls, NY; Washington, D.C.; and Durham, NC. The American Humanist Association conducted a nation-wide ad campaign critical of religious scripture in 2010.

Have any of these campaigns been successful?  It’s very hard to tell.  In LDS’ case, an initial perception baseline has been established.  That’s a good start.  And unlike the examples noted above, general perception in a group of people is being measured, not a change in beliefs.  This is a very important difference because beliefs, formed over years and is based on upbringing and experience, can be very difficult to change – especially in the short-term.  Still, even changing the reputational perception of a particular religion is going to take a very long time; probably much longer than the run of a one-off advertising and social media campaign.

Despite the difficulties the Mormon Church faces in measuring the success of their campaign, it has its  timing right and, it does have people talking.  Not a bad start.  Only time will tell whether there will be a reputational shift for the, and if there is, it will likely be the result of multiple forces — not just an ad campaign.

 

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