Marketing a Mature Brand?

On Friday May 22nd the people of Ireland embraced difference and diversity by approving the 34th amendment to the Irish constitution “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”. Voter turnout was 60.5% and the amendment was approved by 62% of actual voters.

In any country, this would be considered a big win for human rights supporters and those that believe that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality, gender, religious beliefs, or their ethnicity. However, in a country that has traditionally been staunchly catholic and in which the Irish Catholic Church has long had enormous marketing power and influence on the constitution, education, national beliefs and culture, this constitutional change represents the culmination of a long trending shift, of biblical proportions.

Church Marketing Challenges

How has the major and long dominant religious brand in the country lost its marketing leadership position and a significant amount of its authority in Irish society?

The answers to this question are important for any dominant brand in any marketplace. It is always important for market leaders to remember that trust and respect is vital to a brand and that marketing permanence is illusory, nothing is absolute, and fortune is fickle.

Situational analysis – What Happened to Irish Catholic Church marketing  dominance?

  • Throughout the last three decades the Irish Catholic Church has squandered its marketing legitimacy, trust and loyalty of its customer base:
    • Numerous scandals over the last twenty years culminating in the clerical sex abuse scandals and other institutional abuse scandals and the church’s response, have led to an almost complete erosion of trust of Irish Catholics.
  • For a younger, wealthier, better educated population much of the Catholic positioning, messaging and marketing is perceived as outdated and inconsistent with current Irish political, scientific, social beliefs and social needs.
    • Impact of global trends of increased secularization due to the increasing wealth, education, social media use and demographic shifts.

As a result, Church marketing  dominance continues to wane:

  • Regular church attendance continues to decline: As recently as 1970’s, Ireland could have easily qualified as the most catholic country in the world with almost 90 percent of Irish Catholics attending Mass at least once a week. This is now down to 18 -25%. Misc pictures summer 2013 126
  • Customer base is declining and aging: Loyal parishioners tend to be fewer, older less dynamic and less engaged.
  • Aging employee base: The Church is facing a critical unsustainable and potentially terminal staff shortage as recruitment decreases, employee attrition increases and the remaining employee pool continues to age.
    • According to the 2014 Statistical Yearbook of the Church, between 2002 and 2012, the number of:
      • Catholic diocesan priests dropped by 13 percent.
      • Nuns dropped by 23 percent.
      • Laymen who have taken temporary or perpetual vows fell by 28 percent.
    • Ordinations continue to decline. In 1990 there were 525 studying in Ireland for the diocesan priesthood – in 2013, just 70.
  • Church Marketing messages are old and non-engaging.

Church leaders appear either to have not responded at all from a commercial or marketing perspective or else have responded tactically rather than strategically, focusing on reducing costs and increasing operating efficiencies, cutting back on services, closing and/or consolidating parishes and recruiting laymen.  No significant, decisive and proactive organizational or structural strategies or marketing changes have been implemented by the hierarchy that have the potential to dramatically stem the exodus of its lay membership or the continued decline of its brand and its religious communities.

Potential Marketing Recommendations and Marketing Solutions:

It is unlikely that the Irish Catholic Church will ever regain the dominant marketing position, power, influence or audience that it once commanded, nor should it be expected to.  However, there are some indications that the Irish would like some religion that they could believe in. Despite all of the issues outlined above (and numerous other issues not addressed here), in the 2011 census, 84% of the population still identified themselves as catholic. How they define what being “Catholic” is and means, continues to evolve and needs to be understood by the hierarchy and ecclesiastical marketing team:

  1. What are the Irish Catholic Church’s 21st century product market positioning strategies and marketing plans and to whom is the Church messaging to?
  • The Church needs to clarify what the new definition of “being Catholic” is, for the 84% of the population that self-identified as catholic in the 2011 census:
    • Identify and categorize the customer base and market segments that make up the population based on their shared views and expectations.
    • Identify the common ground and or gaps based on the alignment of what the church feels it has to offer and wants to offer based on church doctrine, and what each segment has expressed as the marketing need.
  • Better understand the attributes that are driving Church expansion and faith practice in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas and transfer the marketing lessons to Ireland and Europe.
  • Craft a marketing positioning statement for the group most appealing to the Church based on doctrine, size, and future growth. It should clearly address:
    • How the Church defines the business it is in?
    • How its brand is differentiated from other religious brands?
    • What benefits its customers will receive?
    • How the marketing benefits should be communicated to its target audience?
  • Internal Alignment and training plan: If the Church (or any organization) is not aligned internally on its objectives, goals, marketing positioning and messaging it will be very different to communicate an integrated marketing communication to its target market.
  1. Develop a marketing strategic plan that includes:
    1. Current and future situational assessment (Demographics, market share forecasts, targeting strategies etc).
    2. Clearly defined product strategy
    3. Innovative Marketing Solutions
    4. Marketing on the Web (Online plan)
  2. Reassess current hiring practices and job profiles.
  3. Structural Organizational changes: According to Euripides (485-406 BC), “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small”. This is still true in the Church to-day. Organizational changes will be required, whether the marketing positioning or messaging changes or not. If there is no change in either, the church is likely to continue to contract and a new marketing, organizational and governance structure will be needed anyway.

Yes, The Irish Catholic Church does need a marketing plan. If it already has one, it needs to better communicate it, to its target audience. However for now, the Church appears to be operating as Euripides described above, and as Aldous Huxley (English Novelist, 1894-1963), noted “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history”.