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5 Marketing Lessons We Can Learn From Humanae Vitae


Today, July 25, marks 50 years of Humanae Vitae, the Church document about sexuality, love, and conception.

Most people just know it as the "birth control" encyclical, but either way, no one can deny the impact its made on both religious and secular society.

I'm not going to go into the specifics of the document because there are much more qualified people to do that, and it has been done many times. You can read the document in full here, for reference.

What I want to evaluate is what we can learn about Catholic marketing from this letter 50 years later:

1. Be thorough. One of my favorite things about Humanae Vitae is how thorough Pope Paul VI is, especially in the section on pastoral directives. He breaks down how this teaching will affect everyone and how it should be taught to and explained by every sector of society - scientists, doctors, priests, couples, etc. This is an excellent marketing strategy - know your audience and address them specifically. Talking to moms? Explain about how your product or service will affect their productivity. Writing for teachers? Relate your topic to experiences in the classroom. Pope Paul VI does this brilliantly in Humanae Vitae.

2. Be authentic. One of the biggest criticisms of Natural Family Planning (NFP) from those who utilize it is that the struggles are often downplayed. It is advertised in a romantic light: Photos that accompany NFP articles online feature enraptured couples gazing into one another's eyes in grassy, sunlit fields with zero cares in the world. Plus, I haven't seen a single one that had more than two children in the photos. In fact, by just looking at the photos, NFP and birth control ads can often look very similar. The reality? NFP requires communication, frustration, and sacrifice. And it isn't Catholic birth control - having more than two kids is perfectly okay, and even better than okay. When marketing the Catholic faith, whether a papal document or a blog post, we have to make sure we present both sides of the issue. The worst thing we could do as evangelists is make someone believe that following our faith is easy. That just leads to discouragement and frustration, and probably abandonment of the faith. Rather, we have to take care to express the beauty in the frustration, and the value of fighting through our own desires without sugar coating that struggle.

3. Surprise your audience and get them talking. In 1968, when Humanae Vitae was released, people were expecting the Church to finally catch up to the times, and for the document to formally come out and agree that birth control was perfectly licit for Catholic couples to use. #gotcha Surprise is actually a very good marketing tactic, however. Want to get a buzz going? Create a headline that's the opposite of what you're really talking about, like this one from Aleteia a few weeks ago, "Why You Shouldn't Be Doing So Much Church Stuff." I clicked on it, ready to be offended, and loved it so much I shared it on my Facebook page and got a few interesting conversations started. This article "Marriage Isn't For You" is another of my favorite "gotcha!" titles. Whatever people's opinions may have been and still are about Humanae Vitae, man, it's sure got people talking, hasn't it? When it comes to marketing, all press is good press, as long as you know how to spin it. To take a secular example, you may have seen these...interesting...pink pants that have been floating around Facebook the past few days. People have been sharing the picture thousands of times as a joke, but the designer says these pants are now sold out and reports are that she has increased her following 500% because they went viral. This brilliant marketer has taken what could have been a degrading, demeaning post and turned it into a conversation, increasing her following dramatically. We can do the same thing as Catholic marketers. Similar to what has been done with the probably thousands of Humanae Vitae explanation articles and blog posts, we can use negative "trending" topics as an opportunity to talk about our faith with those who otherwise probably wouldn't have engaged with it in the first place. And who knows? Maybe we can grow Christianity's following by 500% by doing so. :)

4. Postive, not negative. The #1 takeaway from Humanae Vitae is "against." The Catholic Church is against birth control. The Catholic Church is against women's health care. The Catholic Church is against homosexuality. The list goes on and on. Don't get me wrong - I am not criticizing Humanae Vitae here. The Church must express what is right and wrong, and sometimes that message won't be appreciated by others. However, our job as evangelists is to take this misconception of "can'ts" and turn them into "cans." The Catholic Church is for love. The Catholic Church is for life. The Catholic Church is for healthy families and responsible parenthood. I illustrate this very concept in my "Brand Ambassadors for Christ" talk, about the first time I noticed I was falling into this very same trap myself. Last year on a Holy Day of Obligation, I told my boss that I was going out for lunch because I "have to go to Mass" for the Holy Day. It was only after I walked away that I realized what a bad representation of the faith that was - I was choosing to go to Mass that day, even if it was obligatory. Simply changing our unconscious phrasing of how we talk about the faith from negative to positive can be the first step in evangelization. Once we as a church can stop being defined by what we're against, we can start to make headway by explaining what we're for - and that's what we have to focus on as Catholic marketers.

5. Not everyone will like your message. That's probably a good thing. As Catholic business owners, church employees, and faithful people in general, there is already a large portion of the population that has written us off simply because they do not want to hear the Good News. That is okay. If you are in the evangelization business, expect to have to deal with even more arguments, resistance, and ridicule than your secular counterparts. Just by slapping the word Catholic onto your career, whatever it may be, you are opening yourself up to the world of trolls, critics, and the like. But look at how we've dealt with that with Humanae Vitae. It is quite possibly the most misconstrued, ridiculed Church document by those who do not understand it. And what did the Church do in response? Not changing a thing. We've stood our ground, persevered, and done our best to explain why we hold these values and that no, they are not impossible and actually the way things were meant to be. But at the end of the day, if people don't agree? Oh well. We're not changing what we believe to suit the fancies of the world. We'll face the same issues as Catholic marketers. Not everyone is going to agree with you, either from a religious or a business perspective. People might not buy your product or service - but that doesn't mean your idea is wrong or needs to be trashed. You may try to clarify or find new ways of explaining what your business does, but at the end of the day, you need to have the same perseverance the Church has had when it comes to upholding her ideals when it comes to defending your faith and business.

So, 50 years since Humanae Vitae. How the world has changed even since then, and how it will probably continue to change over the next 50 years.

And yet, the document or the message we're preaching from it hasn't changed a bit.

Some food for thought for us as Catholic marketers.


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