Marketing & consumer tastes

Economics columnist Steven Pearlstein goes off on how super-thick clam chowder has replaced the thinner, more authentic version that is much tastier.  In doing so, he makes some point about how markets actually work:  not so much by fulfilling a consumer preference but by getting consumers to change their preferences.  As when research showed that Americans like weak coffee, whereupon Starbucks–going in the opposite direction–taught Americans to like strong coffee.

My search for a decent bowl of clam chowder got me thinking about consumer preferences — how they are established, how they are reinforced by market competition and how they change over time.

One of my first calls was to Greg Carpenter, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Carpenter explained that the way most of us think and talk about market competition is based on something of a mythical model in which consumers know what they want in a product and companies engage in a continuous battle to satisfy those preferences with better and better offerings.

In fact, Carpenter says, most of our preferences are learned and largely formed by social norms and expectations that producers have a strong hand in shaping. Moreover, such preferences are anything but fixed, susceptible to changes in technology, culture, fads and the business strategies of companies competing in the marketplace.

Our notion of what a “family car” ought to be used to be a station wagon. Then it was the family van. Now it is an SUV.Or take coffee. For a long time, the market and all the consumer research suggested that Americans preferred weak coffee, and there were basically a handful of coffee companies, led by Folgers and Maxwell House, that offered products within a narrow range to provide it. Of course, that was until Starbucks came along and demonstrated that maybe our preference for weak coffee wasn’t as fixed as everyone thought.

Our wine preferences have also developed along lines that have caught the industry by surprise. According to Alexander Chernev, another Kellogg marketing professor, the conventional wisdom was that wine was an “aspirational” product that allowed people to see themselves as worldly and sophisticated. In that context, people tended to prefer wines produced in good years from small vineyards in France or the Napa Valley, where everyone knew the best wines were made.

At some point, however, Yellowtail and a few other Australian wines entered the market not only with new products but with a new social context for thinking about wine. Their idea was to relieve consumers of what for many was really the burden of having to know more about vintages and vineyards and grapes than they really did, or really wanted to, and then going through the hassle of wrestling the cork out of the bottle. Instead, they offered a standard chardonnay or pinot in screw-top bottles. What was once a wine negative — commonness, ubiquity — suddenly became a positive.

via Consumer conformity: Why we like thick clam chowder (and other inferior products) – The Washington Post.

What lesson could the church growth movement–which uses marketing research and marketing techniques to try to appeal to more religious consumers and to get them to come to a particular church–learn from this principle?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    I went to a wine tasting course overseen by a friendly old French gentleman in Dallas about 15 years ago. He said that in France, most of the wine was simply that, wine. He jokingly said it took California to introduce snobbery into drinking wine, so the “aspirational” designation of wine was something that was introduced as a marketing concept itself. I well remember my friends jumping onto the bandwagon of every fad that spoke of awesome yuppitude and the “I’ve made it” signalling so important to so many: finding and collecting (not so much drinking) rare single malt scotches, spending $60 for a wine that tastes like most $20 bottles but was recommended in Wine Connoisseur, smoking overpriced, lousy cigars, the whole “slow food” craze, and living in either “new urbanist” developments or small exurban ranchettes.

    As to the CGM – I thought their marketing angle was to appeal to the non-religious by selling an appealing, non-threatening religion. Which is why they rely on trendy sermon “series” on everything under the sun, but very little expository preaching on the Bible via liturgy or lectionary. In seeking to be relevant, they’ve abandoned what is now one of the new buzzwords: “authenticity” which seems to crop up as often as “bespoke” nowadays.

  • SKPeterson

    I went to a wine tasting course overseen by a friendly old French gentleman in Dallas about 15 years ago. He said that in France, most of the wine was simply that, wine. He jokingly said it took California to introduce snobbery into drinking wine, so the “aspirational” designation of wine was something that was introduced as a marketing concept itself. I well remember my friends jumping onto the bandwagon of every fad that spoke of awesome yuppitude and the “I’ve made it” signalling so important to so many: finding and collecting (not so much drinking) rare single malt scotches, spending $60 for a wine that tastes like most $20 bottles but was recommended in Wine Connoisseur, smoking overpriced, lousy cigars, the whole “slow food” craze, and living in either “new urbanist” developments or small exurban ranchettes.

    As to the CGM – I thought their marketing angle was to appeal to the non-religious by selling an appealing, non-threatening religion. Which is why they rely on trendy sermon “series” on everything under the sun, but very little expository preaching on the Bible via liturgy or lectionary. In seeking to be relevant, they’ve abandoned what is now one of the new buzzwords: “authenticity” which seems to crop up as often as “bespoke” nowadays.

  • Rose

    I’ve been thinking that ELCA has tarnished the Lutheran brand to the extent that LCMS needs to differentiate itself.
    “Do you think (changes in beliefs and standards) lead to a stronger faith? We’re from Missouri–show us.” The question needs a little work–any ideas?

  • Rose

    I’ve been thinking that ELCA has tarnished the Lutheran brand to the extent that LCMS needs to differentiate itself.
    “Do you think (changes in beliefs and standards) lead to a stronger faith? We’re from Missouri–show us.” The question needs a little work–any ideas?

  • Jon

    To an outsider, the fact that there are a plethora of Lutheran synods already has tarnished the Lutheran brand. Like the Baptists, no unity, despite each claiming to rely on the same confessions. But I think the ELCA and WELS have overreacted to the ELCA and now risk being known primarily for what they’re against: gayness. I blame conservative political agendas for this, but I would like to hear Christians talk less about the sex lives of their neighbors and more about what they do to, for example, feed and clothe the poor.

  • Jon

    To an outsider, the fact that there are a plethora of Lutheran synods already has tarnished the Lutheran brand. Like the Baptists, no unity, despite each claiming to rely on the same confessions. But I think the ELCA and WELS have overreacted to the ELCA and now risk being known primarily for what they’re against: gayness. I blame conservative political agendas for this, but I would like to hear Christians talk less about the sex lives of their neighbors and more about what they do to, for example, feed and clothe the poor.

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  • kenneth

    Rose, I ‘m sure we should differentiate from elca and the idea is that the gospel cannot be gospel without recognizing a natural theology that places sexuality in it’s proper context, man and women. Of course one would also have to fight postmodern presuppositions against recognizing the naturalness of normal marriages.

    Wouldn’t it, I suppose produce more charitable impulses as humanity rightly, though not in totality, understands itself in relation to God. The postmodern/gay agenda will likely only produce more selfish getting for a consumer mentality. Inevitably the slide toward Gomorrah looks like a culture of narcissusism.

  • kenneth

    Rose, I ‘m sure we should differentiate from elca and the idea is that the gospel cannot be gospel without recognizing a natural theology that places sexuality in it’s proper context, man and women. Of course one would also have to fight postmodern presuppositions against recognizing the naturalness of normal marriages.

    Wouldn’t it, I suppose produce more charitable impulses as humanity rightly, though not in totality, understands itself in relation to God. The postmodern/gay agenda will likely only produce more selfish getting for a consumer mentality. Inevitably the slide toward Gomorrah looks like a culture of narcissusism.

  • Rose

    Jon and Kenneth, Thanks for your ideas. Hard to put them into a single sentence/question, isn’t it? But if Americans can give up weak coffee for strong, maybe they’ll do the same for theology and faith.

  • Rose

    Jon and Kenneth, Thanks for your ideas. Hard to put them into a single sentence/question, isn’t it? But if Americans can give up weak coffee for strong, maybe they’ll do the same for theology and faith.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “but I would like to hear Christians talk less about the sex lives of their neighbors and more about what they do to, for example, feed and clothe the poor.”

    In the developed world, the poor are fed and clothed, so much so that poverty is a risk factor for obesity. They are also housed, provided medical care and educated at public expense. However, they still need the word of God. Certainly it should be abundantly obvious now that meeting material and physical needs is well and good, it isn’t enough. People need the truth of God’s word.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “but I would like to hear Christians talk less about the sex lives of their neighbors and more about what they do to, for example, feed and clothe the poor.”

    In the developed world, the poor are fed and clothed, so much so that poverty is a risk factor for obesity. They are also housed, provided medical care and educated at public expense. However, they still need the word of God. Certainly it should be abundantly obvious now that meeting material and physical needs is well and good, it isn’t enough. People need the truth of God’s word.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “But if Americans can give up weak coffee for strong, maybe they’ll do the same for theology and faith.”

    Who is challenging them to do that?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “But if Americans can give up weak coffee for strong, maybe they’ll do the same for theology and faith.”

    Who is challenging them to do that?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “but I would like to hear Christians talk less about the sex lives of their neighbors and more about what they do to, for example, feed and clothe the poor.”

    Ugh, the sex lives of these folks are really devastating the communities in which they live. 70% illegitimacy among some groups. Those kids need dads. The sex lives of their parents are real and true dysfunction and devastating kids through childhood and beyond. It isn’t just that religious folks are judgmental prudes, it is that this behavior hurts real people. A kid needs a father so much more than just about anything else.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “but I would like to hear Christians talk less about the sex lives of their neighbors and more about what they do to, for example, feed and clothe the poor.”

    Ugh, the sex lives of these folks are really devastating the communities in which they live. 70% illegitimacy among some groups. Those kids need dads. The sex lives of their parents are real and true dysfunction and devastating kids through childhood and beyond. It isn’t just that religious folks are judgmental prudes, it is that this behavior hurts real people. A kid needs a father so much more than just about anything else.

  • Pete

    Rose @2 – That’s good – very good.

    Yesterday I stumbled on an online article by Meredith May, and avid rower from the San Francisco Bay area. She had written about all the benefits of the sport of rowing and of belonging to her particular rowing club. Towards the end of the article was this:

    “… but rowing gives me something much more—something that can’t be measured in trophies. Over the years, crew has become my church. I have become devoted to this group of women and our early morning ritual. My team is a congregation of sisters in their thirties up to their seventies, from teachers and lawyers to a reverend and a rock singer. One teammate is blind—she rows by sound and feel. We not only pull together in the boat but carry each other through job losses, shoulder surgeries, divorces, and second-place finishes. Through our collective wisdom, we can solve any problem. And we throw a mean potluck.”

    If the transaction at church is not an actual encounter with the living God in word and sacrament, then the function of “church” is accomplished as well or better by a rowing club. The Church’s message needs to be that what is offered here is the solution to a problem that cannot be solved through the collective wisdom of any particular group of people.

  • Pete

    Rose @2 – That’s good – very good.

    Yesterday I stumbled on an online article by Meredith May, and avid rower from the San Francisco Bay area. She had written about all the benefits of the sport of rowing and of belonging to her particular rowing club. Towards the end of the article was this:

    “… but rowing gives me something much more—something that can’t be measured in trophies. Over the years, crew has become my church. I have become devoted to this group of women and our early morning ritual. My team is a congregation of sisters in their thirties up to their seventies, from teachers and lawyers to a reverend and a rock singer. One teammate is blind—she rows by sound and feel. We not only pull together in the boat but carry each other through job losses, shoulder surgeries, divorces, and second-place finishes. Through our collective wisdom, we can solve any problem. And we throw a mean potluck.”

    If the transaction at church is not an actual encounter with the living God in word and sacrament, then the function of “church” is accomplished as well or better by a rowing club. The Church’s message needs to be that what is offered here is the solution to a problem that cannot be solved through the collective wisdom of any particular group of people.

  • Pete

    Sheesh … I stronger coffee: That should be “stumbled UPON” and “AN avid rower”.

    And is the above an example of how marketing has altered our understanding of what we want or expect from a church?

  • Pete

    Sheesh … I stronger coffee: That should be “stumbled UPON” and “AN avid rower”.

    And is the above an example of how marketing has altered our understanding of what we want or expect from a church?

  • helen

    Pete @ 10
    Galatians 6:9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
    10As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.

    It would appear that the rowing group fills some of the functions of the early church, as far as temporal needs are concerned. Some churches do less, but the inequalities in congregations also go all the way back to St. Paul! :(
    What of their eternal needs… or aren’t they aware of having any?

  • helen

    Pete @ 10
    Galatians 6:9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
    10As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.

    It would appear that the rowing group fills some of the functions of the early church, as far as temporal needs are concerned. Some churches do less, but the inequalities in congregations also go all the way back to St. Paul! :(
    What of their eternal needs… or aren’t they aware of having any?

  • helen

    Pete @ 10 (cont.)
    If the transaction at church is not an actual encounter with the living God in word and sacrament, then the function of “church” is accomplished as well or better by a rowing club. The Church’s message needs to be that what is offered here is the solution to a problem that cannot be solved through the collective wisdom of any particular group of people.

    Amen!

  • helen

    Pete @ 10 (cont.)
    If the transaction at church is not an actual encounter with the living God in word and sacrament, then the function of “church” is accomplished as well or better by a rowing club. The Church’s message needs to be that what is offered here is the solution to a problem that cannot be solved through the collective wisdom of any particular group of people.

    Amen!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Veith asked:

    What lesson could the church growth movement–which uses marketing research and marketing techniques to try to appeal to more religious consumers and to get them to come to a particular church–learn from this principle?

    Wait, you’re asking what lesson a marketing-driven church movement could learn from … a marketing principle about the creation of demand? Likely nothing terribly different from what they’re already trying, and almost certainly nothing good.

    Isn’t the whole problem with the church-growth movement* that it approaches things from marketing principles, instead of seeing God’s acting in and through the Word to create faith?

    *To the degree that anyone can define “church-growth”; in practice, it seems more like a pejorative label to be slapped on things one doesn’t like than a definitive set of ideas or practices.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Veith asked:

    What lesson could the church growth movement–which uses marketing research and marketing techniques to try to appeal to more religious consumers and to get them to come to a particular church–learn from this principle?

    Wait, you’re asking what lesson a marketing-driven church movement could learn from … a marketing principle about the creation of demand? Likely nothing terribly different from what they’re already trying, and almost certainly nothing good.

    Isn’t the whole problem with the church-growth movement* that it approaches things from marketing principles, instead of seeing God’s acting in and through the Word to create faith?

    *To the degree that anyone can define “church-growth”; in practice, it seems more like a pejorative label to be slapped on things one doesn’t like than a definitive set of ideas or practices.

  • DonS

    Well, this thread really took a course until tODD brought it back to Dr. Veith’s question. I think the answer is that the Gospel is what a church offers to the world, through God’s grace in allowing the Body of Christ to be His hands and feet in this realm. Our goal as His servants should be to plant seeds in fertile soil and then to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work in bringing those seeds to fruition — creating belief in receiving hearts and thus bringing souls to Christ. This is the Holy Spirit’s work, not ours. Our job is to do the sowing, and then to reap the harvest God provides.

    When we use marketing techniques to attempt, in our own strength, to drive people to church and thus to the Gospel, we can alter demand — perhaps causing hearers of our message to yearn for something other than the pure Gospel, as cited in the article as examples in the case of coffee, clam chowder, and wine. We don’t want to lead people to want anything other than the true and pure Gospel freely given by our Savior through His death and resurrection on the cross.

  • DonS

    Well, this thread really took a course until tODD brought it back to Dr. Veith’s question. I think the answer is that the Gospel is what a church offers to the world, through God’s grace in allowing the Body of Christ to be His hands and feet in this realm. Our goal as His servants should be to plant seeds in fertile soil and then to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work in bringing those seeds to fruition — creating belief in receiving hearts and thus bringing souls to Christ. This is the Holy Spirit’s work, not ours. Our job is to do the sowing, and then to reap the harvest God provides.

    When we use marketing techniques to attempt, in our own strength, to drive people to church and thus to the Gospel, we can alter demand — perhaps causing hearers of our message to yearn for something other than the pure Gospel, as cited in the article as examples in the case of coffee, clam chowder, and wine. We don’t want to lead people to want anything other than the true and pure Gospel freely given by our Savior through His death and resurrection on the cross.

  • Rose

    tODD wrote: “Isn’t the whole problem with the church-growth movement* that it approaches things from marketing principles, instead of seeing God’s acting in and through the Word to create faith?”
    Yes, of course. This was a soft pitch from Dr. Veith.
    I found the article encouraging. It showed consumers’ preferences (weak coffee) may be rejected when someone offers a stronger choice.

  • Rose

    tODD wrote: “Isn’t the whole problem with the church-growth movement* that it approaches things from marketing principles, instead of seeing God’s acting in and through the Word to create faith?”
    Yes, of course. This was a soft pitch from Dr. Veith.
    I found the article encouraging. It showed consumers’ preferences (weak coffee) may be rejected when someone offers a stronger choice.

  • helen

    Don S @ 14
    Our goal as His servants should be to plant seeds in fertile soil and then to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work in bringing those seeds to fruition…

    Fertile soil is best, but we can’t always recognize it. As in the parable of the sower we need to plant the seed wherever we are and trust God to let it survive and prosper where and when He will.

    I think part of the CG mantra is to outguess God as to fertility, and they usually use worldly measures, e.g., “Will these people help our congregation’s bottom line?” [I have heard it.]
    I sometimes think all that money going to Joel Osteen bothers them more than all those souls being fed gospel-lite or no gospel at all.

  • helen

    Don S @ 14
    Our goal as His servants should be to plant seeds in fertile soil and then to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work in bringing those seeds to fruition…

    Fertile soil is best, but we can’t always recognize it. As in the parable of the sower we need to plant the seed wherever we are and trust God to let it survive and prosper where and when He will.

    I think part of the CG mantra is to outguess God as to fertility, and they usually use worldly measures, e.g., “Will these people help our congregation’s bottom line?” [I have heard it.]
    I sometimes think all that money going to Joel Osteen bothers them more than all those souls being fed gospel-lite or no gospel at all.

  • DonS

    Yes, of course, Helen. We cannot recognize the fertile soil, necessarily, but it is still our goal to plant the seeds of the Gospel there.

  • DonS

    Yes, of course, Helen. We cannot recognize the fertile soil, necessarily, but it is still our goal to plant the seeds of the Gospel there.

  • helen

    DonS @ 17
    And do you “red line” some neighborhoods and groups as “not worth the trouble” and aim only for “yuppies” or better yet, “DINKS” ? [I've heard that, too.]

    [The Philadelphia project seems to be going quite the other way.]

  • helen

    DonS @ 17
    And do you “red line” some neighborhoods and groups as “not worth the trouble” and aim only for “yuppies” or better yet, “DINKS” ? [I've heard that, too.]

    [The Philadelphia project seems to be going quite the other way.]

  • Helen F

    At the risk of sounding “too dogmatic” (which the church-growthers seem to abhore, that is, “pure doctrine”) I would think that an appeal to Luther’s emphasis on the pure preaching (not only by Lutheran preachers, but those in the pew through their various
    vocations) of law and gospel would be the way to go. God’s Word always gets done what He wants done!

  • Helen F

    At the risk of sounding “too dogmatic” (which the church-growthers seem to abhore, that is, “pure doctrine”) I would think that an appeal to Luther’s emphasis on the pure preaching (not only by Lutheran preachers, but those in the pew through their various
    vocations) of law and gospel would be the way to go. God’s Word always gets done what He wants done!

  • DonS

    Helen @ 18: I think you’re missing my point. I am advocating AGAINST church growth strategies that involve anything other than spreading the Gospel. My take on the posted article is that when we try to make a church “seeker friendly” in an effort to attract more people to our church, we risk misrepresenting the Gospel, and causing a desire for something other than the Grace and salvation afforded by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.

    We never, ever “redline” anything — we are to bring the Gospel to the whole world, for whom Christ died.

  • DonS

    Helen @ 18: I think you’re missing my point. I am advocating AGAINST church growth strategies that involve anything other than spreading the Gospel. My take on the posted article is that when we try to make a church “seeker friendly” in an effort to attract more people to our church, we risk misrepresenting the Gospel, and causing a desire for something other than the Grace and salvation afforded by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.

    We never, ever “redline” anything — we are to bring the Gospel to the whole world, for whom Christ died.


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