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Marketing Catholicism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 05, 2007

In recent months I’ve been receiving emails from Xerox offering me a free multi-function printer, scanner and copier system. If I qualify for the free system, I must agree to process a certain number of pages per month and to purchase all paper, ink, maintenance parts and other supplies from Xerox for the next three years. This is Kodak marketing on steroids. I wonder if the Catholic Church can learn something from it.

It’s About the Consumables, Stupid!

This financial model was used with great success by Kodak for years. The company more or less gave away cameras to sell film. With Xerox giving two-thousand-dollar printers away, the consumables must carry a very high profit margin indeed. Too bad auto makers can’t give cars away in return for paying high gas prices. (We’ve only got half of that equation.) I suspect every reader knows of at least one business where the key to success is in the consumables. It’s a strategy which, within reasonable limits, makes sense for everybody.

There must be ways to apply this to spiritual things. What are the spiritual consumables we need to replenish repeatedly throughout life? Well, if you’ve ever run out of patience, the virtues ought to come to mind as key consumables. Somehow we use them up, and if we don’t constantly replenish their supply, we run short. Vice, being the absence of virtue, is what happens when you run out. Of course, you don’t have to take pictures just because you own a camera. Still, it does seem a waste of a perfectly good soul not to keep it loaded with virtue.

The Catholic Revenue Stream

The Church does not require that you pay something every time you come to Sunday Mass, though the opportunity for fund-raising is reasonably good. Much better would be mandatory financial penances. “We give you a clean soul at baptism, but you must follow the maintenance schedule to preserve your warranty.” I for one would gladly pay to be shriven, especially if the Church would make express lanes available at a slightly higher cost. Patience is understandably at a low ebb in the confessional line. And why not? Grace, in some sense, is a consumable. I need my refills.

Selling indulgences is a variation on the same marketing scheme. God knows we can always use another indulgence, though only for other sinners, you understand. The problem is that for every indulgence salesman such as Johann Tetzel who understands consumable marketing, there’s a Martin Luther to insist that it’s all one and done. One and done, my foot. There hasn’t been a one-and-doner since the Blessed Virgin Mary.

There is no future in running a Church on the principle of "one and done". Infant baptism makes this even worse. The earning and spending abilities of infants are negligible. Unfortunately, the Church perennially occupies the fuzzy middle when it comes to marketing. She seems to think that it is possible to reject Luther without embracing Tetzel. The Church knows grace is a consumable, but won’t sell it. She simply does not understand cash on the barrelhead.

A Marketing Opportunity

But there’s still hope, because selling the liturgy is not quite the same thing as selling grace. A liturgical form is a sort of clothing which dresses up a sacrament, especially the Mass. Look at it like the ring-tones on your cell phone or the “skin” on your PC’s music player. There are many different individuals and groups with preferences for a wide variety of liturgical forms and improvisations, both old and new. At this very moment, there is an immense demand for wider availability of the form prescribed in the 1962 Missal.

The Church wouldn’t sell the Mass, of course. She’d just charge an appropriate fee for the privilege of selecting a particular liturgy or liturgical option each week. This is like letting paid supporters of a web site determine how they want their home page to look. The essential content is available either way. Minor options could go for five bucks a week. Full scale liturgical forms might cost fifty. The plain vanilla liturgy would have to be free, though. Again, we’re not thinking about selling the Mass itself.

Like all great marketing schemes, this one would have the added benefit of being a built-in market barometer. The liturgies which don’t produce revenue would be either no longer supported or discontinued altogether. New liturgies would be introduced to spur sales. Liturgists whose designs fail the marketing test could safely be fired. The captive audience for any given liturgy would be gone. Revenue would skyrocket. I hope to drive a hard bargain with the Vatican for the use of this idea.

The Ultimate Strategy

Actually, this liturgical marketing scenario gets even better. Liturgical forms do not fit the traditional consumables model as well as they fit its most successful modern variant: licensing. Mass is a licensing issue, like downloading music or running software. Using this model, the Mass persists, but you would pay for its delivery and use. Some implementations would take the form of pay-per-view; other possibilities include pay-per-feature and pay-per-upgrade. Think of it: The more beautiful Gloria. The improved homily. The eight-way communion distribution system.

What’s that, you say? The Church can’t market spiritual goods in this way? No slick packaging? No creation of artificial needs? No intellectual property claims? No costly consumables? No licensing fees? Okay, and I’ll add three more: No easy outs. No “one and dones”. Above all, no guarantees. That’s Catholicism. Apparently, it is unlike everything else.

Maybe that should be our marketing strategy.

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