The Virus and the Viral

Days before New York City shut down, senior executives representing major North American markets gathered in a spacious hotel conference room. They had come to Brooklyn to talk business. Sessions focused on data analytics, fintech, and lifestyle branding. 

The event looked like a corporate retreat. Participants shared offsite lunches, traded business cards, and touted their successes using polished PowerPoint slides. But the attendees’ employer was no corporate conglomerate: They worked for the Catholic Church. Their product was God.

Pew Research reports that religious “nones” — those who claim no particular religious belief — have grown dramatically in the U.S., from 17% in 2009 to 26% just ten years later, in 2019. And while Catholics represent the largest religious denomination in the U.S., former Catholics would represent the country’s second-largest denomination.

Glistening marble. Well-stained glass. The scent of incense. The Catholic Church does place better than anyone; now, its very rootedness is being challenged. Nearly all U.S. dioceses have cancelled public masses and dispensed the faithful from their Sunday obligation. In Italy, at least 10 priests have fallen to the pandemic. And the virus’ threat to the elderly only underscores the age of the folks who fill the pews.

As we enter weeks of social distance and shuttered churches, creative responses are starting to show. A priest in Bowie, Maryland set up a ‘drive through confessional’ in his parish’s parking lot. Other initiatives work at a larger scale. The Vatican announced it would livestream the Pope’s weekly Angelus address on its website, as St. Peter’s Square has been closed. Plans are in the works to livestream the Pope’s Holy Week and Easter celebrations: the pinnacle of the Catholic liturgical calendar. Regardless of the medium, the Church needs to keep its flock engaged.

But loyalty is not the underlying problem: relevance is. Senior Accenture executives identified a key transition from loyalty to relevance in the world of consumer brands. Relevance requires an accurate assessment of need that goes beyond static definitions of customer ‘archetypes.’ Instead, wrote the Accenture team, “The reality is that there is no such archetypical customer. Everyone’s needs vary depending on time and context.” The authors went on to identify personalization as a key component to marketing strategies, allowing a brand to connect on the basis of any need.

Relevance matters well beyond the needs of any single aging, changing denomination. If religion itself is perceived as irrelevant, First Amendment religious freedom rights lose their weight. Religious institutions are weakened. The moral framework that drives so much financial benefit to the U.S. economy — $1.2 Trillion per year, according to research published by the World Economic Forum — is diminished.

Catholic bishops are slowly evolving to combat irrelevance. They are going where people are, instead of waiting for them to darken the doors of a church.

Today, 73 U.S. Catholic bishops and 125 dioceses are active on Twitter. Pope Francis boasts over 18 Million Twitter followers on his @Pontifex English-language account. And dioceses are following the lead of their shepherds: the Archdiocese of Detroit, for instance, has launched a cross-platform ‘lifestyle brand’ called Unleash the Gospel, complete with slick Instagram graphics, narrative storytelling, and a bi-monthly magazine filled with poetry and long-form profiles. Although the beautiful visuals and sharp videos earn hype, the program’s real success is in driving relevance, not in the digitally-driven tactics that constitute it.

Religious relevance is built by forging personal connections between individual believers, their faith leaders, and their institutions. Religious marketers, Catholic and otherwise, are trying to catch up to the corporate world. When they do, all Americans will benefit. Stronger connections and better storytelling at every level will help religions find the relevance that makes faith stick.