An ancillary comment delivered by Dr. Brian Stiller in his concluding talk in a lecture series here at Northwest University got me thinking about something I heard recently on the HBR IdeaCast. The current issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) includes their annual survey of emerging ideas under the title Breakthrough Ideas for 2007.
Breakthrough Idea #3 introduces the idea of cohort marketing. The brief article explains that “the typical brand manager is an ageist.” There are, of course, all sorts of ways to segment markets, but breaking markets up into generations is probably the most common and effective. So, a brand manager targets a generation and then manages the brand by attracting those who are aging in at a rate equal or greater to the number of those aging out. As middle aged men move from Polo to Brooks Brothers, brand mangers drag young men away from Abercrombie and move them into Polo. This is a tried and true method; it is marketing conventional wisdom.
The HBR, with new idea #3, urges consideration of a different approach. A cohort branding approach dictates that once a brand manager selects a generation, the work then becomes managing the brand in such a way that it matures with the cohort. This is a strategy aimed at nurturing brand loyalty. Rather than counting on customers moving from Ford Mustangs to Lincoln Continentals as they age (risking the loss of the customer in the transition), the strategy would be to let a brand segment morph and age with the consumer. The model they offer is the Harry Potter brand; the series is primarily targeted at kids who are the same age as Harry and they all, Harry and customers, are aging together. The strategy certainly has limits (anybody interested in an Oscar Meyer filet mignon?), but it is an interesting idea.
I contend that the Church has been doing cohort marketing for years, although sometimes without intention. In our contemporary churches it is not uncommon for a ministry to age, often times right along with the founding pastor. So a church might start young and hip, but then the nurseries get upgraded when the leaders start having kids, then children’s church becomes a major focus and maybe even a Christian school, followed by youth groups, and so on. Other aspects of cohort marketing in church contexts drive us to keep things the same. Music tastes, for example, often don’t change as we age; so a cohort strategy for churches would be to lock in to one music style and hold on to it through the years.
In a more macro sense, entire denominations seem to follow this cohorting pattern. Something new happens, an organization forms, and it develops and matures along with its leadership. But somewhere along the way the organization’s rate of change slows, or even stops, and organizational forces are then applied to holding on to an era, at which point the organization faces the risk of becoming irrelevant.
A simple approach to cohort marketing has an obvious fatal flaw: cohorting puts an expiration date on a brand. A church that follows this simple path will eventually die with its leadership.
But if we would come to grips with cohorting, it could unlock a path to increased effectiveness. I think I can make a case that individual churches should cohort. The local church is the best expression of the Body of Christ. Sure, Jesus saves and the Holy Spirit indwells individual believers, but persons are saved and filled to not merely remain persons but to become a people, the church, God’s cohort of believers knit together to worship, serve, and witness.
Many small group strategies work in this sort of cohorting fashion. A church could embrace this too, as long as it could manage several cohorts. In the corporate world, cohort marketing only works over time if there are new (or possibly renewed or recycled) brands introduced on a periodic basis. In the church world, leaders would need to intentionally manage a range of cohorts through multiple services. I understand the rationale behind a strategy that simply duplicates a one-size-fits-all worship service a few times on a Sunday morning, or even several times throughout a week, but I think applying this cohorting strategy could increase impact. If congregations were encouraged to cohort, it could result in deeper meaning, stronger service, and more loyalty.
A successful denomination or church organization needs to resist cohorting for the whole group, but rather intentionally lead a multi-cohort strategy. The difficulty here could be that organizational leaders may mistake cohort distinctives as what ought to distinguish the whole, which would likely lead to getting stuck in an era and eventually becoming irrelevant. There needs to be more of a big tent mentality, lots of different expressions of style that are bound together around unifying goals and principles for the good of all.
I’m interested in feedback from readers. Does this make some sense or is it wrongheaded? Do you have examples of how this does work in the church world, or how it has failed? I’d like to hear from you; use the comments option below.