Stations of the Cross on T-shirts. A graffiti mural campaign. A touch-screen ad with a search engine called “Godgle.”
All were ideas presented by students in a University of St. Thomas strategic communications class who applied their newly learned skills to one of the world’s oldest organizations: the Catholic Church.
During the fall 2019 Writing for Strategic Communication class, Doug deGrood, an adjunct professor at St. Thomas, taught his 15 students to build and focus an advertising campaign using standard industry methods and tools. Then, as their final project, he told them to apply those strategies to an imaginary advertising campaign promoting the Catholic Church.
He cheekily referred to it as “‘Mad Men’ meets men of the cloth.”
“The Catholic Church has always been near and dear to my heart, … and like a lot of Catholics, (I’ve been) really disheartened by what’s transpired over the last five, 10 years,” said deGrood, a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis who has worked more than 30 years in advertising, referring to revelations about clergy sex abuse. “Professionally, my interest was, here’s a brand … that’s really got a black eye. Wouldn’t it be interesting to take it on as a marketing and communications challenge?”
Students worked in four groups, each latching onto different themes of the faith and using a range of tools from print ads and billboards to social media and videos to get the message out. Tom Halden, communications’ director for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, talked to the class about the Catholic Church as they got started.
One group focused on the universality of the Church and scripted a video or commercial that showed the Eucharist as a unifier across time of all people to Christ. The group also imagined the Church commissioning graffiti artists to paint Church-centric public art around major cities, and launching a new app that would — spinning off Pokémon GO — encourage people to find the art and reward them for their efforts. In addition, they proposed a TicTok social media campaign to share videos of clergy and religious men and women having fun.
Another group ran with the tag line “Timeless Values,” with a focus on the Church’s unwavering commitment to the Gospel, the poor and community. They paired that history with innovation, such as a street-level touchscreen ad that read “Not every question is Googleable,” where passersby could enter their faith-based questions into a “Godgle” search engine that would relay a related Scripture verse.
They also proposed that the Church partner with an art museum for a modern art show, and launch a Catholic Church-branded wine that would spread the theme of “Timeless Values” through its use and its own advertising.
When the students presented their projects, they had extra audience members: Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens.
The archbishop said he was grateful for the students’ creativity. “They brought not only great professional insights but also a youthful perspective that we sometimes lack in the Church,” he said. “I think that much of what was presented would have immediate applications in our ministry.”
Bishop Cozzens was also impressed with the creativity, as well as the “dedication which these students brought to a very difficult issue.”
“Not everything in the Church lends itself to being presented in advertising, but we can definitely learn from the expertise these students demonstrated,” he said. “It was fun to see their work.”
At Archbishop Hebda’s request, three of the students shared their presentations Jan. 7 at Lumen Christi in St. Paul at a monthly gathering of local Catholic communications professionals. Among them were seniors Sam Herriges and Olivia Zipperer, whose “Timeless Values” campaign included the wine and “Godgle.” They said the project was unique because of people’s emotional reactions to the Catholic Church.
“Once we started diving into it, we were like, this was way harder than we thought,” Herriges said.
Zipperer said they focused on ideas that would surprise their audience as coming from the Catholic Church.
“That’s what we want, because that gets people talking about it, gets people intrigued, and it gets people interested in what we have to say,” she said.
Their classmate, Mackenzie Hunter, a junior double majoring in strategic communications and Catholic Studies, said she felt like the project was a dream come true. Even before the class, she hoped to work in Church communications after graduation, and the project strengthened her interest.
It also challenged her perspective. Hunter initially thought the right direction was to focus on the Church’s unchanging teaching, but discovered that non-Catholic members of her group found that message off-putting. Instead, they were attracted to the Church as a “universal home,” which led to their focus on the Church’s universality and their proposals for the graffiti mural hunt and TicTok campaign.
Welcoming needed to be the first step before teaching doctrine, Hunter told the Catholic Communicators group Jan. 7 during her presentation.
“I think you need to meet people where they’re at,” she said, noting she was grateful for her classmates’ insight. “How can you welcome people into this, rather than turn them away?”
DeGrood thinks some of the students’ ideas could be implemented, especially one group’s idea to use Instagram to share people’s stories about why they’re Catholic.
“Context is everything,” he said. “Any ways that the Church can insert itself in culture in a modern way, in my mind, is going to go a long way to increasing its relevance in people’s lives.”