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Retailers set sights on Mormons’ pocketbooks

Deseret Morning News, USA
Nov. 21, 2004
Carrie A. Moore
deseretnews.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday November 22, 2004

Products designed for large LDS market include clothing, travel

On a shelf at Wal-Mart’s Sandy store on State Street next to a line of jewelry boxes and figurines sits a 15-inch statue of the Angel Moroni, boxed and ready for holiday shoppers, many of them predictably members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who recognize the Book of Mormon character as the figure perched on more than 100 LDS temples worldwide.

Complete with removable trump, it’s touted by the packaging as “a unique keepsake to brighten any decor” that “makes an especially thoughtful gift. . . . The statuesque pose of the hornsman gives an essence of revelry. A great addition to your precious collection.”

While many may well be turned off by the hawking of one of the faith’s signature symbols made in China for Wal-Mart and selling at $19.86 there are few better clues about the growing market for LDS products, and the money to be made from some 12 million Latter-day Saints. Once considered a tiny niche market, the church’s rapid growth in the past two decades portends more targeted marketing by both LDS and secular retailers to an ever-growing audience.

The sculpture now marketed by the world’s largest retailer provides some context for both the rapidly growing LDS product market and the potential challenges it poses for both retailers and the church.

LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said “several different versions of Angel Moroni sculptures that appear atop church temples are legally protected images. But at press time, it was uncertain whether Wal-Mart has a licensing agreement” with the church to reproduce the image.

The Mormon Church

Given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.

As to what LDS leaders think about such efforts, “the church does not endorse commercial products or services. Promoting business ventures or investment opportunities is not allowed in our buildings or our meetings.”

Bills emphasized that members “make their own decisions regarding purchases of commercially produced products or services designed to appeal to Latter-day Saints.”

Latter-day Saints may notice Wal-Mart’s Moroni differs from LDS versions. First, the figure appears to be wearing a tennis visor. Further, the description on the box touts the statue’s “bronze” finish and the sense of “revelry” the “hornsman” invokes. The Moroni atop LDS temples is gold and plays a trump instead of a horn to spread the gospel, not to party.

Sociologist Rodney Stark, a University of Washington religion researcher who has studied the growth of the LDS Church, has called Mormonism the “next great world religion” and predicts its membership will swell to 267 million members by 2080. Numbers like that are not lost on marketers always looking for new customers.

And Latter-day Saints don’t have to look far to find additional evidence.

Last week, Doubleday released the first secular printing of the Book of Mormon, and church-owned Deseret Book the largest producer of LDS books and music acquired LDS filmmaker Excel Entertainment. The combined company’s first new release will be “The Work and the Glory,” set to hit theaters this week.

But beyond the formal church-owned operations is a rapidly expanding network of retailers catering to Latter-day Saints, mostly via the Internet. Demand for LDS products in recent years has brought interest from a more diverse group of retailers who now market a wide range of products that include conservative clothing and specialized travel.

Matt Kennedy, founder of Orem-based LDSLiving.com, leads the pack. His online magazine goes out six days a week to 220,000 Latter-day Saints, and the bimonthly glossy print version reaches tens of thousands more, as does his Internet filtering service. Most of the products he advertises in those venues are also produced by LDSLiving.

The 6-year-old company ships 5,000 to 6,000 product orders per month, he said.

Products include tiny scripture totes for young Latter-day Saints and teenage girls (“they fit the military-sized scriptures”) and a new line of white “Onesies” baby attire featuring a necktie stitched on the front for LDS infants.

Another recent addition to Kennedy’s product line is a regulation-size orange basketball with the words “Church Ball” emblazoned on the skin in large, black letters. Many Latter-day Saints participate in basketball leagues organized by local congregations and played in LDS church gymnasiums.

To them, the label elicits memories of overblown egos and down-to-the-wire contests where players release their pent-up frustration on each other in ways that are unacceptable in any other LDS venue. “It’s only been out three weeks, and we’ve already sold almost 10,000 of them,” says Kennedy, grinning.

Salt Lake advertising executive Peg Fugal sees the proliferation of LDS products and many of their accompanying marketing efforts as a reflection of the LDS Church’s own “brilliant” efforts to market itself.

The faith’s visitors centers, signage, logos, buildings, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “those are all sales tools.”

“You never drive by a Mormon church that isn’t beautifully manicured or a temple that’s not a showpiece. You can call it religion or truth, but it’s also marketing. It creates interest and curiosity. And the greatest marketer in the history of the LDS Church is Gordon B. Hinckley.”

The current church president has worked in LDS public relations for decades and since becoming president in 1995 has worked tirelessly to help the church shed many long-standing negative stereotypes. As he told Mike Wallace of the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes,” in what many see as a watershed public relations coup for the church, Latter-day Saints are not “weird.”

A sampling of products sold by LDSLiving.com, based in Orem.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

And Bonneville Communications, the church’s advertising arm, has produced the most-awarded public service advertising campaign in history with its Homefront series.

For marketing students at Brigham Young University particularly, the lessons provided by the church on how to market are closely examined. Several have started their own LDS marketing efforts.

Gary Rhoads, professor of marketing at BYU, said the LDS Church does “great in-house marketing research” to determine members’ needs. “If there is a product or service they should provide to strengthen members, they do it virtually for free.”

Indeed, formal church distribution centers “make available at nominal cost materials that members need to study, teach and share the gospel,” Bills said.

David Alcorn, director of BYU’s Institute of Marketing, said the push for LDS products is a direct result of several factors, chief among them a growing membership and a well-defined set of needs that people who are familiar with the church can meet easily over the Internet.

The church has its own generation of baby boomers, he said, who have “come not only to expect, but to demand of themselves the notion that the things they pursue are consistent with gospel teachings. You see that both in entertainment and in the products and services” Latter-day Saints buy.

Alcorn spoke last week with the president of a national retailer who told him the company was convinced its Utah stores needed to carry more modest women’s fashions for LDS buyers. “This is a huge market that can’t be ignored any more,” he said.

And as LDS students graduate from college and move to other parts of the country, they take a distinct message with them, Alcorn said. “LDS people aren’t that different, but they do have some different needs, and marketers are picking up on that.”

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