When Chick-fil-A announced in late November that it would stop donating to faith-based organizations, I was confused.
After all, just six months ago, I wrote an article applauding the faith-centric chicken chain for standing by its founder, Truett Cathy, and the values he built the business on.
The reversal made me wonder, is faith still taboo in pop culture?
I’ve been studying the role faith plays in marketing to the New Heartland for over a decade. As one of the three core values this cohort, which makes up 60 percent of the country, prioritizes in their decision-making process, it’s important to explore its relevance in today’s society.
Faith… “Too Polarizing!!”
When I unveiled the New Heartland as an under served cultural segment at the Pepsico bottlers meeting in 2010, I was advised by a friend who was a senior marketer at P&G, to avoid talking about faith completely. He said faith in marketing is “too polarizing.” For a minute, I took his advice, because I wanted people to like me. After a little soul searching, and based on my research, faith, not religion, is a major core value New Heartlanders hold dear. So, I sucked it up and took a flyer at being dismissed by the massive audience before me. Luckily, the folks at the meeting understood where I was coming from and how faith factors into purchase behavior.
Your Beliefs Don’t Matter
As a marketer, your personal beliefs don’t matter in this conversation. It’s about the values of the brand you market and how they align with the New Heartland customer. Stripping out your evangelical, bible-beating stereotypes of the New Heartland is a great place to start. Get to a place where you understand the role faith plays.
Lately, entertainment and faith have been intersecting in ways that reflect a New Heartland state of mind.
Faith and its connection to pop culture is gaining ground with both New Heartland and non-New Heartland personalities leading the way. Together, celebrities from different religious backgrounds are showing that it’s OK to embrace your faith. It’s not about religion. It’s about faith…however you practice it.
Faith is finding its way into unexpected mediums across a variety of genres through believers with a platform. Here are 6 examples from 2019 of pop culture heavyweights leaning into faith, not away from it:
1. Justin Bieber Takes Time Off to Get Closer to God
His career has been a journey of finding himself in an industry that defined him during his formative years. Now in his 20’s, the pop star is regularly in the news for associations with faith. It was reported extensively that he abstained from sex for a year before getting back into a relationship with his now-wife Haley Baldwin. He explained, “I wanted to rededicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul.” On New Year’s Eve, Bieber shared an Instagram video of his tattoos, many of which are inspired by his belief in Christianity.
- Bieber has 123.9 million Instagram followers
- He made Spotify history in early 2019 with 6 singles that garnered upwards of one billion views
2. Eric Church Faces Monsters with Prayer
2019 was the year of embracing faith in country music. Some notable songs featuring faith include Matt Stell’s “Prayed For You,” Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country” and Little Big Town’s “The Daughters,” fans were introduced to “Monsters” by Eric Church at the end of the summer. Church sings about the power of prayer when faced with difficult times. Since his first EP, “Sinners Like Me,” Church has danced with faith in his lyrics to much success.
3. Chance the Rapper Gets Inspiration from Above
Since Chance the Rapper declared himself as a Christian rapper in 2018, he has lived out the lifestyle very publicly. He uses Jesus’ name on network TV, volunteers for Kids of the Kingdom in his hometown of Chicago, and shares his message of faith through his music. His 2018 single, “Blessings,” opens with the line “I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone. When the praises go up, the blessings come down.”
4. Dolly Parton Takes Traditional Values to a Non-Traditional Genre
Swedish DJs Galantis and Dutch singer Mr. Probz approached Parton with a proposal to sing on their EDM remake of John Hiatt’s 80s hit, “Faith.” Many of her country songs have been re purposed as party mixes, but this is the first time she collaborated on a venture of this type outside of her bluegrass roots. Her collaborations following 18 years away from the stage are predominantly faith-focused. In addition to “Faith,” Parton joined forces with For King and Country earlier in 2019 on their song “God Only Knows.”
5. Seth Rogen Rewarded as Jewish Icon
The comedian makes Jewish culture central to any film he produces or stars in. From “Knocked Up” and “Guilt Trip” to “The Night Before” and “Long Shot,” characters and themes associated with Jewish realities abound. For his newest movie to be released this year, “An American Pickle,” Rogen picked up a new language so he could play a Yiddish immigrant to the United States. His efforts to showcase Jewish culture in his films, as well as contribute to the community, were rewarded in December 2019 when Rogen and his father received the Generation to Generation Activism Award by the Workers Circle.
- Rogen’s production company, Point Grey Studios (which he named after the high school he dropped out of to pursue comedy), released 4 seasons of television and 3 films in 2019 alone
- His Instagram following stands at 7.3 million
6. Kumail Nanjiani Mixes Comedy and Faith
When Kumail Nanjani started stand up comedy in Grinnell, Iowa, during his senior year of college, he wasn’t sure where it might take him. In the years after 9/11, however, he decided that tying his message to his Muslim faith would be a way he could increase understanding of the culture in America. At the beginning of his career, he would open each set by saying “Don’t worry, I’m one of the good ones.” Fast forward several years, the comedian turned actor produced a movie called “The Big Sick,” which had a religious backdrop embodied in his tense relationship with his devout parents.
- “The Big Sick” won a Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Comedy in 2018
- Nanjiani is set to star in a new Marvel universe film, “The Eternals,” coming out this year
- He has 617k Instagram followers
Many marketers eliminate considerations of the role of faith from advertising because they don’t want to seem out of touch, uncool, or weak. In the New Heartland, engaging at the lifestyle and values level is so important. When agency and brand decision ignore the role of faith in buying behavior, they greatly dilute the impact of their messaging. Embrace the nuances of the New Heartland. Understanding its diversity, heritage, and culture is critical to building deep brand relationships. Faith is a core value that shouldn’t be ignored.