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Father Bob: the marketing "guru"


The recent “Father Bob” controversy suggests that perhaps Bob Maguire should be put in charge of marketing strategy at Christian HQ (not sure if they have a headquarters, but it sounds good – a big Church with cars with flashing crucifixes parked out the front; lots of people walking around with Bibles looking serious; interrogating atheists; all wearing those cassock thingies and the Pope headgear).


What Bob has been able to do is talk directly to his “customers” (the parish), and adapt his marketing mix without losing its essence; something that the strict structures and systems of the Catholic institution are not able to do. Father Bob spreads the Christian message in a direct way – by getting out and talking about it to his constituency – and seems to represent an authenticity around the Christian message that many (see comments on the Catholic News website) believe is lacking in the upper-echelons of Catholic power. While many have been critical, he has also been able to embrace the contemporary fragmented media world, and use it to the advantage of attracting people to the Christian cause. The only cause for alarm for the Catholic church, is that perhaps as a result of their handling of this issue, Bob has become the focus of the issue, and to some degree his own brand. But if the role of a priest is to support his local community – his target market – then Bob should be commended, rather than criticised.


 According to ninemsn:

“Father Bob has received a letter telling him he is close to the mandatory retirement age of 75 and will need to tender his resignation to the Catholic Church. Father Bob recently announced in his blog that he has been given a month grace after his birthday to leave his home: "He (Archbishop Denis Hart) gave me two dates for compliance. One was my birthday. He expects a letter of resignation. The other is a month later. He expects me to vacate the premises," Father Maguire said. "No good whingeing about lack of courtesy or respect for a senior field officer."


Regardless of whether you agree or don’t agree with Bob’s approach to teaching the scripture, it seems that he is able to get his message out about the values of Christianity so much better than the “one size fits all” sledgehammer approach of a national advertising campaign, such as the somewhat naïve  “Jesus. All about life.” campaign paid for by hundreds of churches, and about to be foisted on an unsuspecting public.

Now please bear with me here, because I don’t necessarily want you to think that I am reducing the teachings of Christianity (or any other religion) to something as crass as a commodity, but Jesus and the whole Christian faith have pretty much applied many of the principles that we teach in marketing. Some might say that religion invented marketing. I also want to make it clear, that this piece is not a criticism of religion per se, but a criticism of how religion operates as an organised entity sometimes against its broader objectives.


Think about some of the key marketing symbols and artefacts in Christianity; they use an instantly recognisable logo (the cross) as a visual shortcut or heuristic to the values of Jesus; they use word-of-mouth to convert people to the faith (and the product); they even use a whole range of special events to remind us of the importance of the product to our lives, and they tangibilise the experience through their use of a text that can guide us through our lives.


But one of the key factors with this product is the personal relationship that individuals have with God, and with His representatives (in this case their local parish priest). When it comes to marketing, Christianity really knows how to get to the nub of what works, and what doesn’t.


The problem, though, is when the essence of the product becomes lost in the bureaucracy, rules, systems and structures of the organisation managing the product. Denis Hart, the Archbishop of Melbourne, in a fairly unchristian media release has confused the issue somewhat by implying that Father Bob has spent too much money in his role, thus implying that Bob is not a Saint, and perhaps trying to make a case for why people need to reconsider their assessment of Bob.


However in a column in The Sunday Herald-Sun, he cites canon law as the reason that Bob must retire:

“So in January this year, I wrote to all priests who were due to turn 75 in 2009, alerting them to the canonical requirement that they present their resignation from office on their 75th birthday. This is a time for the priest to reflect upon their years of service and what they wish to offer the Church in their remaining years.”


This might be reasonable in the context of a bureaucracy, but as I have written elsewhere, the problem with systems is that they struggle to adapt to suit different contexts. A systems-based approach, as practiced by the traditional Catholic church, might work if everyone was willing to accept that they are part of a hierarchy, with the flock (us) being presided over by a patriarchal and compassionate institution (the church bureaucracy), but recent management of a range of issues in the church have meant that we don’t approach it with the reverence that they would desire (or perhaps, require).


What Father Bob is doing is reaching out to his constituents – in marketing we would call this the “target market” – and while holding true to the values of Christianity adapts the message to suit them. As Barney Zwarz writes in The Age, his services are “eccentric, but orthodoxy”.


Although he has a significant media profile, that helps him to spread the message (which I would have thought is critical to bringing lost souls into the flock), he is also admired by many for his work in the community. As youth worker Les Twentyman says, “Father Bob continues to put food on the table for people living in boarding houses around South Melbourne… He was the first one to recognise we had street kids in St Kilda 35 years ago – I’m just staggered by this.”


You could even argue that Father Bob has exceeded all of his KPIs, in the context of getting people to talk about the work of Christians. In all of his utterances and quotes in papers, he reinforces the values of Christianity, for example, “We give glory to God in the highest.” He says that people come to his church to “pray, and laugh, and be part of the community” and that his throng is “not the Catholic exclusive brethren, we are the inclusive brethren.”


So, perhaps the churches that are about to spend one million dollars on an old-fashioned, interruptive broadcast model of advertising to get people to reconnect with Jesus need to attend one of Bob’s marketing masterclasses. They might be better off spending their marketing money on reaching out to their local communities, rather than wasting it on a mass audience that is likely to ignore the message

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