Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Marketing the Mormons

I remember the marketing class I took in the summer of 1987 as part of the "core" requirements for my master's degree in business administration. One of the things that struck me most about the course material was the comparison made between American car manufacturers and Japanese car manufacturers and how each did business in the 1960s and 1970s. The upshot was that American companies essentially designed and made cars that they liked, leaving it up to their dealers to sell those cars to the public, whereas the Japanese companies actually went out and researched what the public wanted and/or needed, and then designed and made cars that essentially sold themselves. This comparison served to underscore the difference between selling, on one hand, and marketing, on the other. In the years since, I've often contemplated the missionary program of the LDS Church, concluding time and again that the church is still stuck in "selling" mode, as opposed to concentrating on improving the "product" it is offering -- that is, making church a place where people actually want to be, instead of the place where they go on Sundays, if at all, out of a sense of guilt or obligation. (And I'm not advocating offering door prizes and holding a drawing at the end of sacrament meeting.)

Thank goodness we haven't arrived at the point...yet... where we go to church for the specific and masochistic purpose of being excoriated by a minister preaching hellfire and damnation (I keep picturing Ian McKellen's "Church of the Quivering Brethren" in the 1995 film Cold Comfort Farm: "Well, I'll tell ye! There'll be no butter in Hell!"). However, in many ways, the message we typically receive on Sundays isn't much more encouraging -- and if "men are that they might have joy," one might wonder to what end we have Sunday church meetings! I'm well aware of my own faults -- I don't need to be reminded of them at every turn, as if that were going to "inspire" me to improve myself. Needless to say, there's no joy in it so far as I can see.

And, of course, this doesn't even address most of the social aspects of church membership, which often seem calculated to elevate and emphasize our differences to the near-exclusion of what we have in common. The resulting tension and disunity among members -- and don't try to tell me I'm imagining it -- is a huge impediment to the whole notion of missionary work. My in-laws mentioned to me the other day how the ward in which their daughter and son-in-law live in Connecticut has an 85% activity rate, which of course is phenomenal by modern standards. The members there often spend time together outside of church and seem to enjoy each other's company, instead of being at unspoken odds with each other. Now, it is an affluent area, and thus the ward undoubtedly is pretty homogeneous in terms of social class and income bracket -- in contrast with our ward here in Albuquerque, which has annual incomes ranging from $200K+ down to less than a tenth of that -- but, notwithstanding, they must be doing something right to achieve that kind of activity rate. The church missionary department would be wise to do some research in that respect.