How a church emulates Starbucks

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In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed how marketers can learn a thing or two from the techniques of televangelists and how religious institutions like Willow Creek Community Church have successfully adopted secular marketing tactics. Now comes the June 13 Wall Street Journal, which discusses how U.S. churches are acting like global brands. To wit:

  • The 8,000-strong Flamingo Road Church operates four locations in Florida and virtually through a location on Peru. The church seeks to grow to 50 locations and 100,000 members, not unlike a multi-national corporation. And, just like a global brand, the church uses its own logo, visual identity, and music at all its locations. Church leader Rev. Troy Gramling told The Wall Street Journal he seeks to copy the success of Starbucks and wants to develop “the look, the feel, the branding idea, of what Flamingo Road is.”

Sounds like a CEO talking! But I have some free marketing advice for the reverend: if you really seek to build a global brand for your church, lose the name. Flamingo Road Church is named after its Florida address. But I’m thinking Sin City.

Some might find it distasteful for a religious institution of any denomination to so nakedly embrace marketing. But religious institutions are no different than secular organizations that seek to attract and retain members: they need to make themselves known if they’re going to succeed. And like secular organizations, they can choose any manner of tasteful or obnoxious ways to spread their message through marketing. For instance, Rev. Gramling of Flamingo Road maintains The Potential blog where you can have a conversation with him. Opening up a dialogue in the blogosphere is a natural and smart move. But on the other hand, “prosperity minister” Mike Murdock uses a website and TV appearances to grovel for cash and make vague pronouncements about achieving wisdom. I have no idea what his message is except that he wants your money.

Regardless of whether you share their beliefs, you can see some marked differences in how they use marketing: Gramling being forward looking and conversational, Murdock employing the tired old approach of talking at you.

One cautionary note: for many years Willow Creek became the model mega church of smart marketing by offering people a vibrant, show-biz style alternative to the church-going experience. But Willow Creek focused too much on attracting members with contemporary music, skits, and other forms of experiential marketing. The church didn’t put much thought into keeping its “customers” after they’d joined. The church failed to customize its approach, and now it’s been reeling from a membership exodus. Let’s now see how a religious institution adapts its marketing and “service” approach.

9 thoughts on “How a church emulates Starbucks

  1. I really appreciate your thoughts on marketing, as it pertains to the church. At Flamingo, we take the concepts of branding and marketing seriously. As you pointed out: \”we seek to attract and retain\” too!! Love the blog! And look forward to visiting again to glean some marketing advice from you for what we\’re doing at Flamingo.

  2. Thank you, Heather! It must have been an interesting experience working with The Wall Street Journal. The article was quite thorough and fascinating; it\’s interesting that Flamingo ended up in Peru, too. Keep blogging . . . when people comment and even criticize, at least you have a chance to have a dialogue with them and learn from what\’s on their minds.

  3. There has been a large exodus of members over the past year as the marketing has taken over and become more important than the ministering. All flash and cash. How much many is spent on wardrobes? How much on fancy sets? How much on staff that are nothing but yes men and women? For every three Starbucks cards they gave out, they could have sponsored a child through World Vision for a month. What was spent on just one of Troy\’s Ed Hardy shirts could feed a child for three months. Make no mistake, your money goes to pay for flashy wardrobes and sets, personal assistants, trips that are turned into a 3 minute clip for a service. It should be about Christ, not about Troy and his cronies.

  4. Great article David. Thanks for the advice. We have talked about the name change. Very true! Just for the record, in the last year attendance has grown 30% so I guess the \”large exodus\” has been the other way! Thanks again. I look fwd to reading you in the future.

  5. I appreciate the input from both Allen and the anonymous reply from the person who left Flamingo Road. The former member raises an interesting point. Let\’s say you\’re the head of a religious institution, be it a church, synagogue, or other house of worship. Presumably you market yourself and your religious organization in order to serve some sort of higher spiritual calling, not to promote you or your organization as an end unto itself. Is that a reasonable assumption? If so . . . then how do you ensure that the marketing of yourself and your organization does not interefere with your mission of fulfilling a higher calling? (Frankly politicians face the same challenge: they need to sell themselves personally while at the same time win hearts and minds for the political and social agendas they represent.) I think this is the challenge issued by the person who left Flamingo — this individual felt like all the trappings of supporting the image of Flamingo and the reverend were detracting from the mission of the organization. This issue is especially acute for any religious leader who uses television as a marketing medium — face it, if you\’re a Joel Olsteen talking to the masses on TV, there is enormous pressure to look \”sucessful\” and dynamic to keep viewers from switching channels. I\’m not suggesting that religious leaders need to wear sackcloth and ashes, but our anonymous contributor does raise a good point. Any thoughts?

  6. I have been attending FRC for the past 18 months after 50+ years of being a believer but not a church goer. I believe a church has to do both things, market themselves and teach the word of God. Pastor Gramling does both very well. If his t-shirt makes one young person say thats cool and they stop and listen to his teachings we should buy them by the hundreds. I have learned more about the teachings in the bible in 18 months than in the 12 years of sundy and bible study when I was younger because Pastor Gramling makes it real and useful in today\’s world. Keep on Trucking

  7. I totally agree with Heather and Alan —Flamingo is great at bringing people in. The only problem is that it\’s membership is miles wide, but only inches deep. So while there may have been an increase in membership, it is members that come and sit through a 50-60 minute services and then leave. How is small group membership? FRC struggles to get volunteers to serve and then browbeats the core group of people who do serve. Plus, I am not sure what it takes to get one\’s name off Flamingo\’s membership rolls. My family is likely still be counting as a member even though we left when Satan Speaks was rolled. [Come on, who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to sit at a keyboard and pretend to be the devil speaking?] I resigned from my volunteer position, ceased my tithing, and found a new church with real depth. Yet, I still get envelopes in the mail from Flamingo so I assume they are still counting me as a member. The youth group has had an interim leader for months. The school that is affiliated with the church is in shambles and barely has enough students to fill one class in each grade. But the bright lights, fog machines and strobe lights can block out the glare of these shortfalls. And hey, if you are one of the big donors, Troy will invite you to a private dinner. Last year when Troy shut down the feeding ministry at Hallandale, he said that it was temporary and that they would be rolling out a new way of taking care of the homeless…..still waiting to hear what that is Troy. God kept nudging me about all the things that did not add up or seemed inconsistent with His word. I finally realized that I got sucked into the charismatic marketing machine that is Troy and FRC. I realized this was the first church that I ever attended that did not open it books at least once a year to allow members to know where and how its money was spent. This was the first church I belonged to where the pastor knew and cared about who his big donors were (might I suggest Troy check out Mark 12:41-44). If you want to be entertained, by all means go to Flamingo and watch the free show. You will be spoonfed the message. The music is downright amazing. You don\’t even have to have a Bible because they will flash the verse up on a screen for you. (Heather, notice the capital \”B\”, without it you are just talking about any other book). You will get just enough religion to let you say with a straightface that you attended church. But if you want to be spiritually fed and to develop a closer walk with Christ, I would highly suggest looking to Paster Bob Coy, Paster Robie Barnes or any number of other good churches that manage to be contemporary but not let the show become more important than the mission. The music may not be as loud and you won\’t find expensive sets and light screens. There is no Starbucks in the foyer. The pastor will not be wearing flashy clothing. There will not be a fill-in-the blank sermonette. Instead, you will spend significant time in the Word (and if you don\’t have a Bible with you, one will be given to you). The pastors will have spent more time reading their Bibles than they did reading the latest leadership book or marketing book. The message may make you laugh, cry, or cause you to cringe when it hits so close to home that it convicts you to change the way your are doing life. I feel sorry for those who have not woken up and smelled the coffee —your missing out on a real relationship in the body of Christ. I pray that one day you will see the Light…the real one, not the flashing strobe light or the one that indicates the camera is on.

  8. Thanks for the post, interesting to hear the negative along with the positive. We should All be very careful to judge and presume to know the intentions of another person or ministry it is clearly written in God\’s word (for those who spend much time hearing it on Sundays 🙂 1 Samuel 16:7..
    We are all un-perfect and ALL fall short.. I was there during \”Satan speaks\” series called RationaLIES… people Got saved and hundreds baptized. I\’ve been there when pastor Troy wore a Button shirt or an Ed Hardy shirt, either way this year 1381 Baptized, thousands saved…
    Hey folks if we\’re all trying to get to heaven, we NEED each other

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