This post originally appeared on Trans/Missions, the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion site.
A few weeks ago I walked into my hometown Ralph’s grocery store in a suburb of Los Angeles and found Homeboy Industries chips and salsas in the deli section. Delicious, hot, crispy and full of ethical goodness–yum! Just in time for the Super Bowl, Homeboy rolled out its new partnership with the supermarket chain, which has garnered a lot of attention over the past few weeks. The stories about this new entrepreneurial venture by one of L.A.’s beloved non-profits, including the piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, have focused on the business of changing lives through jobs and economics. But most of the reporting leaves out important angles on religion, which means we’re only getting part of the story.
The obvious missing piece in much of the coverage is the religious provenance of Homeboy Industries and the faith of its founder, Father Greg Boyle. But it isn’t just that the stories are overlooking religion; the marketing of the organization and its products also tends to obscure the spiritual roots of the organization. A recent post at GetReligion.org points out that one has to drill down pretty far not just in most press coverage but also on the organization’s own website to learn about its Catholic origins.
Cause-related marketing has a track record of helping businesses and non-profits express their core values in order to encourage consumers to feel good about their purchases. The history of faith-based entrepreneurship also includes stories about economic development programs that have successfully used the rules of the marketplace to provide economic stability and self-sufficiency to the institutions and the individuals they serve. Given Homeboy Industries’ rich history and the inherent draw of feel-good products, why would a brand with so much soul have decided to keep its religious history out of sight? And, more to the point, why would reporters not want to pull back that curtain?
A study in contrast is Justin Bieber, with his God-given talent–and hair. Bieber’s new movie plays up everything that the stories about Homeboy’s chips and salsa seem to play down. By almost all accounts, “Never Say Never” is (no I haven’t seen it) chock-full of religion, and coverage of the film usually includes at least a few lines about Bieber’s religious upbringing and beliefs. Bieber is becoming a brand with religion as a marketable component, and Paramount is working that angle with an outreach strategy that includes targeting Christian churches and youth groups. There is even a movie-related curriculum that helps viewers discern God’s plan for their lives.
As an Entertainment Weekly article notes, “[M]arketing to Christian groups became quite popular post-‘The Passion of the Christ’; like secular marketing campaigns, it’s about making sure people who may not think a film has something for them see that it does.”
Is Justin Bieber selling God, or does a “God-glow” make us want to buy Justin Bieber? Why are the deep religiosity of Homeboy Industries’ founder as well as the organization’s Catholic roots and practices not part of the story, and not part of Homeboy’s marketing? When does religion sell and when does it detract from a brand, a person or an enterprise? Does religion-branding resonate with some demographics (like fans of a high-achieving, fresh-faced teen icon) but not with others (like Homeboy’s secular fellow-travelers who are also concerned about gangs, violence and poverty)? And does all of this come down to a difference between contemporary Catholic and Protestant approaches to evangelism?
Getting the answers to these questions might require some digging, but asking them might help us understand our deeper (and shallower) assumptions about religion and/in the market.
Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.