Brand Choice and Communication Behavior: Consumer Response to the Marketing of Religion

Donald J. Hempel, University of Connecticut
William J. McEwen, University of Connecticut
[ to cite ]:
Donald J. Hempel and William J. McEwen (1975) ,"Brand Choice and Communication Behavior: Consumer Response to the Marketing of Religion", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 231-240.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 231-240


Donald J. Hempel, University of Connecticut

William J. McEwen, University of Connecticut

[The collection of data was supported by the New England Synod of the Lutheran Church in America.]

[Donald J. Hempel is a Professor of Marketing and Acting Head of the Marketing Department at the University of Connecticut.]

[William J. McEwen is an Assistant Professor in the Communication Division of the University of Connecticut.]

In applying marketing concepts to the examination of a selected social institution, this paper reports results of a study of consumers of formal religions. Product perceptions and a range of consumer activities and attributes were surveyed in a mail sample of New England households. Segmentation of consumers by "product" and "brand" related values and activities was undertaken to provide feedback to promotion strategists. Emphasis is placed on personal values, evaluation criteria, and product-related communication behaviors of three identifiable consumer segments. Implications for broadening the scope and application of marketing theory are discussed for both the consumer behavior theorist and the social institution marketer.

Recent concerns for broadening the concept of marketing have resulted in a growth of application of marketing concepts to such nonbusiness areas as population control, health services and fund raising (Kotler, 1972; Kotler and Levy, 1969). Contrary to the conclusions presented by Tucker (1974), this new direction seems to hold considerable promise both for theory development and an improved responsiveness of social institutions. Basic marketing concepts (e.g. market segmentation) can be refined and improved through empirical testing in a broader range of social settings with a broader range of social "products." Theory which is based upon rather traditional conceptualizations of market transactions can perhaps be mate more relevant to contemporary concerns (e.g. the corporate social audit) by integrating marketing concepts into a broader perspective of exchange relationships within large scale social systems.

The goal orientations and emphases on performance evaluation among nonbusiness organizations have certainly been influenced by management training seminars using business applications concepts. Systematic evaluation of marketing applications has, however, been lacking in many of these social institutions. It thus seems desirable to further evaluate Kotler's concept of generic marketing by examining the applicability of marketing concepts to organization-client relationships in those nonbusiness areas which Tucker suspects have little comparability (religious, political and educational organizations).

This paper examines the organization-client relationship for one of these institutions, viewing church-member interactions as a marketing problem. The study described was designed to provide regional leaders of a national church organization with information about consumer (nonmember as well as member) activities, interests and opinions as a means of both assessing the present status of and targeting future directions for their communication programs. The aspect of consumer behavior which was of particular interest here is brand choice -- more specifically, what are the more useful bases for segmenting the religious markets of major concern to different denominations? The need for information of this type, as well as its potential use as a basis for directing religious communication strategies, has been recently summarized by Engel (1973).

The audience for religious communications appears both large and highly segmented, as evidenced by the number and variety of religious denominations represented in the array of local churches. Two market segments from this audience appeared to offer particular promise as client groups of special interest to those planning persuasion programs: (1) the church member (or "active consumer") group; and (2) those households which are in a transition state in terms of community affiliations (movers who are establishing themselves in new neighborhoods). Such segments can of course be additionally refined by introducing segmentation bases employed in more traditional product marketing settings. More notable (and heuristic to both theorist and strategist) would be extent of product usage (frequency and duration of church attendance), product involvement (including communication activities related to the product), and the various life style dimensions (e.g., Plummer, 1974).


The study was conducted among samples drawn from three populations of New England households during the period of May to July of 1974. First, a sample of 949 church members was selected from the membership rolls of 30 churches in the New England Synod, Lutheran Church in America. The sample represented a multistage probability sample of all members listed in the current directories of the 140 synod churches. A second sample of 200 designated church leaders was obtained from a synod headquarters list of leaders in the 140 member churches. Finally, a sample of 960 recent home buyers was selected from the localities chosen for the church member sample (including communities adjacent to the selected towns). This probability sample was selected to represent a key market segment consisting of movers who purchased a home in the residential areas served by the 30 parochial units included in the church member sample. [The home buyer sample was restricted to towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut because population listings were not available for the other four states. Since most of the sampled Lutheran churches were located in these two states (24 of the 30 churches), this restriction had little effect on the comparability of the home buyer sample to the church member sample.]

Each selected household received a cover letter, introducing the project as a study of how people in New England feel about churches and religious activities. The letter made no mention of denominational affiliation and stated explicitly that respondents need not be active church members. The study was presented as part of a continuing program of communications research undertaken by a team of university faculty members. The instructions stated that the questionnaire could be completed by any adult member of the household.

The four-page study questionnaire was divided into three parts. [Originally, a five page questionnaire was developed. A pretest mailing to 200 Connecticut households was used as the basis for constructing the four-page questionnaire described here.] Part I employed Likert-type scales to measure attitudes toward the role of churches, with emphasis on personal value systems and the meaning of religion. Part II measured opinions regarding the type of church-related information desired by respondents, their use of media for general local news and for church-related information, and the choice criteria they would advocate using for selecting a local church. Part III obtained basic demographic and life-style data, along with information about church attendance, religious affiliation and involvement in church activities.

Most questions were structured so that responses could be recorded with a single check mark. The selection of topics and wording of questions was based on previous studies of religious attitudes (Strommen et al., 1972) and on three focused group interview sessions conducted by the authors. The preliminary sessions indicated that many people (particularly those uninvolved in religious institutions), are hesitant to engage in discussions of their personal religious beliefs and values. This hesitancy and the length of the questionnaire were reflected in response rates lower than comparable studies of consumer attitudes toward commercial Products. Usable questionnaires were returned by just over 27% of those who had been sampled, with response rates differing somewhat for the three populations represented. [Return rates for the three identified populations were as follows: church members - 29.5%; church leaders - 45.5%; new movers - 21.2%.] Refusal to answer specific value or demographic questions averaged about 42.


Extending a marketing approach to religious decision-making suggests at least two decision-outcomes of interest: product (religion) acceptance and brand (denomination) selection. Assessing the relationship of product and brand usage to information-seeking patterns and to attitudinal, attribute preference and life style patterns suggests a further breakdown in the presentation of results. Results are thus presented according to two defined subareas of interest: (1) the relationship of personal values and attitudes to consumer attributes and information preference patterns; and, (2) the relationship of product and brand involvement to personal values and to preferred religious ("product") attributes.

The results presented here involve a classification of the respondents on the basis of responses concerning their religion, mobility, and involvement in church activities. Those who did not respond to all three of these questions were eliminated for this analysis, even though the population from which they were selected was identifiable through color-coded questionnaires. This adjustment provides a set of more precisely defined market segments for comparison. The residual group of respondents (with missing data on any of these three classification variables) will be treated later as a separate market segment.

Personal Values and Consumer Attributes

Table l presents the intercorrelations of nine personal value variables with six consumer attribute variables for each of the three market segments. Coefficients are shown only for those variables where the correlation had a chance probability below .10 for at least one of the segments. Due to missing data on individual questionnaire items, the correlations are based on pairs of 95 respondents in the leader segment, 175 in the established church member segment, and 198 in the mover segment.

The first three personal value variables are index measures composed of several questionnaire items which had high loadings on the same orthogonal factor. Each of the remaining variables represent responses to single questions which the factor analyses indicated were relatively independent of the other measures or had high loadings on several factors (e.g., the personal importance of religion). All of the personal value measures used Likert-type scales.



Several relationships appear to merit attention as bases for the segmentation presumed to exist. As might be expected, religious dependence (traditional view of religion; religion as security for self and family) is positively related to age and church attendance, and negatively correlated with education. Age was also correlated with conservatism (no need for concern with change), as was stability of residence. The personal irrelevance of religion (money emphasis, insufficient social activities, too little to say about life) was negatively correlated with two measures of product usage-frequency of attendance and (for church members only) the degree of church involvement. The frequency of church attendance was highly correlated with the personal importance of religion for all market segments.

There are several other relationships which are interesting because they were unexpected, and/or because they provide additional bases for segmentation. Agreement with the statement that religions are pretty much alike was positively correlated with the stability of residential environment among the church members. This suggests that the market segment which might be regarded as the foundation of a church's position in the community (i.e., members listed in directory) may be less likely to perceive their religion as differentiated from others. The concern generated by this finding is partially offset by the finding that the frequency of church attendance is negatively correlated with the attitude that one should try to find out more about different religions when moving into a new community. In other words, frequent product usage appears to generate denominational (brand) loyalty.

Table 2 presents the intercorrelations between the personal value variables and the three measures of sources preferred for information about churches and church activities. Each index is composed of several measures of source helpfulness which factor analysis indicated to be closely related along the same dimension. Examination of differences in value structure according to media preferences reveals that religious dependence was greater among the member and leader segments who relied upon church sources (church newspapers, magazines, bulletins, and pastors). Recent movers who relied upon these sources were somewhat more likely to express satisfaction with their progress toward fulfilling personal goals. Reliance upon public media (local radio, newspapers, and television) and informal personal sources (relatives, friends, and neighbors) was positively correlated with religious dependence among church leaders and members. Recent movers who found these sources to be helpful were less likely to exhibit religious dependence either in terms of the general index of dependence or the specific rating of religion importance. The personal relevance of religion was lower among those who relied upon informal personal sources in all three market segments. Ratings of this source were positively correlated with life satisfaction among the leader and mover segments, but not among established church members.

In general, the ratings of information source helpfulness were not highly correlated with personal value structure. The findings do suggest that leaders and members who have greater religious dependence are more likely to rate all information sources as helpful in finding out about churches and their services. This relationship appears to be the opposite for movers--high dependence was associated with lower source ratings. One explanation for this pattern is that religious orientation fosters information search which increases consumer sensitivity to information available through all communications media. Recent movers with a strong, traditional religious orientation may be frustrated in their efforts to find information (particularly from public media) because they have less knowledge of where to search in local media.



Product Involvement, Product Perceptions and Personal Values

Additional data analyses were conducted to study the pattern of personal value and product evaluation criteria which are associated with specified personal attributes. Table 3 presents the results of these analyses. Since age was noted to be a significant correlate of a variety of personal values related to product perceptions and product use (evidenced in the Table l data as well as by Strommen et al., 1972), it was used along with market segment as a classification variable.

As was expected, younger respondents (18 to 34) indicated less dependency and religious conservatism than did older (35 and up) respondents (e.g., see items 5 and 6 in Table 3). The newly moved segment also expressed lesser dependency than the other ("product user") market segments. Interestingly, the results indicate that church leaders, regardless of age, are no more conservative or fundamentalist in orientation than the established nonleader members. If anything, church leaders may be somewhat less conservative than their established followers. This position may enable them to form an important bridge in attempting to attract members from the segment now making product and brand choices (the new movers).

Examinations of product use (based on item l as well as actual frequency of reported church attendance) suggests that involvement with the product (in terms of leadership role) is positively related to actual product use and to perceived product need (item l). In terms of rated product importance, however, involvement in a leadership role does not reflect different perceptions. While church leaders attend more frequently, they report no greater felt importance or meaning for religion (items 2 and 3) than the established members. As expected, newly moved respondents indicated relatively lower usage and importance ratings for the product category. It would, however, seem inappropriate to view this latter segment simply as nonusers and hence of little practical concern. Ratings of the product remain above neutral for this group, no doubt due in part to the fact that these respondents represent newly moved segments who took enough time to fill out a questionnaire on religious values. Thus. there are indications of product interest and at least occasional users in this segment. This may well be a target market for those involved in generating product acceptance.

One set of interesting comparisons is evidenced by the differences in values among younger respondents. In contrast to the earlier conservatism and traditionalism differences, where church leaders were more like the newly moved target segment, younger established members are more like younger movers than are younger leaders in terms of willingness to express negative reactions toward the product (e.g., item 8) and in perceptions of a lack of brand differentiation within the product class (item 10). This may seem to indicate a relatively more "alienated" younger segment exists among church members who are not involved in a leadership role. Yet, concerns for the role of religion in cementing the family (e.g., item 4, plus several others not reported in Table 3) and the general concern with the need for guidance (item 5), suggests that this younger group does have some similar value patterns to the involved leader group(s). In sum, then, the younger, presently uninvolved member may form a kind of psychological bridge to the younger recent mover segment. Use of the former group in attracting the latter segment to product and brand use would seem, however, to be predicated on increasing the nonleaders' actual and felt degree of involvement in institutional decisions.



Examinations of product perceptions in terms of the rated importance of evaluation criteria suggest some segment differences. Older respondents, regardless of segment, indicated a greater concern for the church as a gathering place for friends and as a generator of service programs and social activities. Only in the area of religious value criteria did market segment differences appear. Leaders expressed somewhat greater concern than regular members or new movers for the brand as an evaluation criterion and for religious socialization programs for the young. A fair number of areas of agreement appear to exist in terms of criteria deemed important or unimportant in choosing a church. The major difference, consistent with the item 10 results, is a relative lack of felt brand-related differences among those less involved. If brand differentiation is to be a major goal of churches (as it is a concern of church leaders), results suggest that this goal may not be addressing the major choice determinant for nonuser segments. Perhaps a more viable strategy is to address nonspecific product involvement and product use prior to brand loyalty development. The "ecumenical movement'' thus appears to relate well to the implications of those market segment differences which seem to exist.


These results are suggestive of differences in activities and information patterns which are associated with what might be termed religious consumer behavior. It appears that product and brand related behaviors do have a real relationship to a variety of consumer attributes and preference patterns. While this hardly seems remarkable to the commercial product marketer, it does indicate the applicability of a basic marketing approach to the social institution marketer involved in encouraging a commitment to "consume" a particular "brand" of services. The decision process of joining a group or of choosing a church can be viewed as a consumer choice, with considerations of product attributes, consumer values and information needs as a crucial component in developing a viable promotional strategy. Despite the relatively intangible quality of social services (such as those provided by a religion), the decision process seems to be structured and determined analogously to more typical consumable product choice phenomena. Examination of this decision process would thus appear to profit from a marketing framework stipulating empirical investigation of decision determinants and behavior correlates. From a theoretic perspective, such extrapolations of approach are important. From a pragmatic standpoint, efficient and effective strategies demand this type of social product application.


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