Of all the great institutions of the world, the Catholic Church has the most staying power. But with priestly scandals and Vatican II modernization, the “brand” has been tarnished, and millions of communicants have left. To deal with this, in 1998 the Diocese of Phoenix started an effort to bring lapsed Catholics back to the church called Catholics Come Home. Over 3,000 accepted the call. In 2000, the effort went nationwide. Led by Tom Peterson, the now Atlanta-based Catholics Come Home has been accepted at the highest levels of the church. Their promotional advertisement, seen here, was even shown when the Pope came to New York.
The effort has had lots of press; interestingly, the rationale that Peterson gave in an interview last spring was not so much that people left for specific reasons; instead they just fell out of the habit. “People just stopped going,” Peterson told Fox News. It makes sense; we hear the term “lapsed Catholic” so much that if you didn’t know what “lapsed” meant you would think Lapsed Catholic was some sort of religion of its own.
That there is a need for it is undoubted. Divorce statistics of Catholics mirror the population, and other statistics are bad too. And while you can’t fault people in a congregation for what a priest does, it is entirely reasonable to say that parishioners get the clergy they demand.
The effort definitely evangelical, but is not pushy. No guilt. Instead, it does classic smart marketing. Instead of dealing with the negatives, it shows the church’s positive points, in an extremely powerful way, speaking to “Rich and poor. Men and women. Sinners and saints.” Essentially, it is but a retelling of church history. A few key phrases:
We are the largest charitable institution on the planet. We educate more children than any other scholarly or religious institution. We developed the scientific method and laws of evidence. … For centuries we have prayed for you, and for our world, every day, whenever we celebrate the Mass. Jesus himself laid the foundation of our faith when he said to Peter, the first Pope, “You are a rock and upon this rock I will build my church.”
The commercial is powerfully written and produced; even a non-Catholic like me was reminded of the importance of the Catholic tradition. And mentions of “scientific method” touch every button. Plus, who can argue with Jesus, and birds flying over St. Paul’s?
This effort should not only be watched by other denominations that wish to help brand themselves. It is also a good example for any marketer that has an essentially good product that has been overlooked. Very often, you don’t have to change the product. Instead, you make sure that all the problems are fixed, and go back to core “product” strengths.