Hillsong is a multi-million dollar global brand with a massive following, particularly among the young. What can marketers learn from this fast-growing faith factory as it turns 30, asks Robin Hicks.
Say what you like about Hillsong. The happy-clappy megachurch does not enjoy a Godly reputation in all quarters, and gets a kicking in the comment thread on Mumbrella whenever we write a story about Gloria Jean’s, the coffee chain it supposedly has ties with.
It’s also been on the receiving end of some bad press for a lack of transparency over its finances, sordid goings-on that led founder Brian Houston’s father to depart, a book by a former Hillsonger that called it ‘toxic Christianity’, and allegations of vote stacking in Australian Idol.
But Hillsong is one of Australia’s few global brands. It is one of the most powerful Australian youth brands. And it is the fastest growing church in a country where religion is in decline.
The ‘city on a hill’ has grown from a congregation of 45 in a school hall in Baulkham Hills in Western Sydney in 1983, to a rapidly expanding network that packs 20,000 people into stadium-sized arenas all over Sydney every Sunday, and in Melbourne, Brisbane, the UK, the US, Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia, the Netherlands, Sweden and South Africa.
Next month, Hillsong turns 30. Pastor Brian would probably be able to deliver an interesting sermon on 30 years of marketing to young people, but is overseas and declined to be interviewed.
So what’s the secret to Hillsong’s appeal? And how does the church – which doesn’t use an ad agency – market itself?
Hillsong is as famous for album sales as it is for spreading the word of Jesus, and owes much to ‘worship resources’ for its youth appeal.
“Music is what helps make Hillsong relevant and accessible to young people,” says Richard Sauerman, strategy director at Shift. “It is the main thing that lifts Hillsong above other older, dustier religions.”
Produced through its own record label, Hillsong Music Australia, 40 albums have been released in two decades. The music brand Hillsong United has its own YouTube channel, which has amassed almost 30m views.
The album People Just Like Us went platinum, while For All You’ve Done reached number one in the mainstream charts. As of December last year, Hillsong had sold 12m albums worldwide. Hillsong Music albums regularly feature in the top 10 charts on iTunes in Australia and the US.
When Hillsong changed from Hills Christian Life Centre to Hillsong in 1999, so its associations with the group’s most high-profile asset became stronger. Even the Hillsong logo has the look of an album cover.
Each service begins and ends with music, performed by young, hiply-dressed ‘worship teams’. Here is a clip from a service on Sunday. I promised myself I wouldn’t sing along, but as you may hear, I couldn’t help it. I felt like I was in a very big karaoke lounge.
The advantage Hillsong music has over, say, Christian music in the US is that it crosses a range of genres, from soft to hard rock, to gospel, soul and dance (about the only stuff they don’t do is death metal). This gives Hillsong appeal beyond non-believers, which is an effective way of softly infiltrating new markets.
Here is the soft rock track Search My Heart:
And the harder rock track Yours Forever:
Though Hillsong has not been immune to falling CD sales as digital downloads take their place, the church expects much growth to come from the US, where it has inked a deal with EMI Christian Music Group.
After I attended my first service on Sunday, I went to the welcome booth. This is positioned directly outside the exit to the auditorium, laid out like a coffee shop.
Welcome to Hillsong…
I was greeted by an attractive, smiley young woman who exploded with excitement when I told her it was my first service. Within roughly 45 seconds, I had a free cup of coffee in my hand and my contact details had been entered into one of a number of computers to register newcomers. I was told I would receive a call in the week from the leader of a ‘connect group’ in my area. Connect groups are gatherings of 10 to 20 people, split into age groups, who meet every fortnight to “hang out, chat, eat, have fun” and talk about the Bible.
The one thing holding Hillsong back is securing new space for its expanding follower base. In its annual report for 2010 (2011 has not been published yet), the church states, “Growth in our congregation and college has resulted in an acute need for additional facilities.”
“I wasn’t watching movies or dramas,” a Russian Hillsong worshipper says in an interview on its Facebook page discussing the church’s leader and his wife. “I was watching Hillsong Television. I couldn’t stop watching it. When I was watching Bobbie and Brian, they lifted my heart and I wanted to run to church.”
Not a bad call to action. Hillsong TV has helped the brand globalise, and is watched in 180 countries worldwide.
A comment beneath this video reads: “Sitting here, crying at 3 in the morning watching this video, and thanking God.” The narrator has a grave God-like voice, church leaders discuss growth strategy like any business consultants, and the video has the look of a Terence Malick film.
“If we’re not in the media, we’re not where the conversation is,” says Geoff Bentley of the Australian Christian Channel. “So as Christians, if we’re not part of the picture, we’re missing out.”
HillsongTV.com has a section called ‘Partner with us’ where viewers can make a donation towards the channel. Give any amount, and you’ll be sent a CD. Donations of more than $70 get a DVD box set.
Messaging and language
Critics of Hillsong, and other Pentecostal churches, do not like the ‘health and wealth gospel’ that it preaches – the idea that wealth and success are signs of God’s favour. Al Crawford, planning director of Clemenger BBDO Sydney, reckons that Hillsong is simply working with rather than against the modern, materialistic world in which we live.
Unlike other churches, Pentecostalism is about enjoying life now. If you buy into this brand of God, your finances and health will be taken care of in this life, and the next. This is packaged into dramatic, theatrical services. And served up by passionate, articulate pastors who deliver their sermons with the sort of persuasive gesticulation that any charismatic demagogue would have been proud of. The Bible is read in simple terms with key phrases repeated often, with the congregation repeating these words with the pastor. Pastors use the word ‘cool’ a lot.
Old Spice does a Hillsong
“There are similarities between Hillsong and Old Spice,” says Crawford. “Old Spice took masculinity and re-framed it for the younger generation. Hillsong did a similar thing with Christianity. It does not deny its heritage. But it re-imagines it in a younger, contemporary context.”
“Hillsong has worked out that it’s difficult to sell something to anyone if they’re not listening. If you can enthrall the audience with music and theatrics, then what you tell them after is on fertile ground,” says Crawford.
A Hillsong spokesperson responded with the following: “Pastor Brian Houston has always said, “The message is the same, but our methods have to change” when referencing the way that we have approached the culture and style of our church services.”
“There are many, many great churches across this country – from all denominations, and each one has a unique ‘style’ to their service. We recognize that the ‘style’ of Hillsong Church services doesn’t appeal to everyone, but each aspect of our services is designed to enhance the message of the Gospel – the very same Gospel of Jesus Christ that is being preached from pulpits all across the country.”
“We believe that the message of Jesus Christ is timeless – but our communication of it must change. Churches can no longer JUST preach to peoples’ Sundays. They must be relevant to their Mondays too.”
The service (brand experience)
My experience of Hillsong is just a single service, which lasted for one ‘hour of power’.
First, a song. This seemed to go on for an eternity, but probably lasted no longer than 15 minutes.
Next, a pastor reads out some prayers from the congregation. These ranged from finding a job and healing a baby with flu, to release from court conviction and a visa extension. These were followed by thanking God for prayers answered, which included someone passing their driver’s test.
The congregation was asked to raise their hands if they had “sickness in their body”. Those who raised their hands were touched by those around them and a communal prayer said for their recovery.
The pastor gives a free Hillsong CD to a member of the congregation. He then gives another to someone else, on the condition that the recipient gives it to someone “outside the church”.
Donation buckets were passed around.
During a warm-up speech, the pastor says: “If you give to God, He will meet your every need.”
He invited the congregation to sign up for evening classes to “be a light in the darkness” and help spread the word.
A commercial break. On large screens, a slickly produced episode of Church News. This promoted Hillsong College for ‘the future leaders of the global church’, Hillsong Live and Sunday Night Live, ‘Church like you’ve never known it before’. The pastor urges the congregation to “bring along someone who wouldn’t usually go to church”.
Pastor Grant Thompson takes to the stage to deliver the sermon. He asks who has a paper Bible and who has an e-Bible. Most of the congregation have either iPhones or iPads. To make a point about being true to yourself, pastor Grant uses an analogy of a poor man who musters enough money to buy a Sharp calculator. But the calculator, he discovered, was a fake (a ‘Shrap’) and doesn’t work.
The service closes with a (very lengthy) song called Our God with the lyrics ‘Our God is greater, Our God is stronger’.
The culture of the Hillsong brand is based on ‘leaning in’ and ‘giving yourself’ to the church – a powerful antidote to loneliness. “Personal accountability defines culture in any church, any business, any family,” says Houston in a video on culture. “What do you lean into? What do you give your heart to? That is what will frame the culture of your world.”
“When we started out, we never thought about the culture we wanted to build. We just did what we believed God called us to do. We are not trying to build a culture, we’re trying to be a culture. And the more you give to it, the more others will give too,” Houstons says.
Brian Houston, the senior pastor at Hillsong, is a religious celebrity, as is his wife Bobbie. The Auckland-born 57-year-old is a talented orator, which provides Hillsong with another lucrative revenue stream from his appearances on the international speaker circuit. An Australian marketer I know, who isn’t a Christian, used to go to Hillsong services just to study Houston’s presentation technique.
Houston is also an author of 12 books (including the titles You Need More Money, How To Live In Health & Wholeness and Get a life), executive producer of Hillsong Music and fronts Brian Houston @ Hillsong TV. He owns a number of houses, including a waterfront property in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, and rides a Harley. He is never seen wearing a clerical collar.
Hillsong Kids has five brands for children of different ages, including Voltage for five and six year olds, Fun House for kindergarten age, Cubby House for those aged 12 months old to two. Branded play areas are located in Churches, and extensions of the conferences (including Kidsong) cater for youngsters.
Hillsong Kids has released five albums.
Hillsong markets effectively to young people of all ages, and is active in universities recruiting new blood. Which doesn’t always prove popular. A former student told me: “When I was studying at university, a group of people from Hillsong visited to ‘make friends’ with students. I found it intimidating. Anyway, some of my uni mates joined them. Why? Either because they were worried they wouldn’t pass their finals, or they thought their music was awesome. They bought into it like it was a product, not because they really believed in Jesus.”
Though Hillsong may seem to have a young following, the church insists that its consumers are not predominantly young.
A Hillsong spokesperson told Mumbrella: “Contrary to what has been reported in the past, our largest ‘demographic’ is not ‘young people’ – but instead is aged 35-45. I think the ‘young people’ of our church are more visible than other churches because Hillsong places great value on and believes in raising up the next generation of youth to be functional, contributing, healthy members of society…and we have a lot of fun and passionate young people in our church!”
The story of Brian Houston has an aspirational rags to riches appeal. A kiwi, who some time after arriving from New Zealand and joining his father’s church, began riding around Parramatta in a red Datsun 180 B as he started his own following, is well featured in Houston’s sermons, and in the video Only for a while.
The biggest event (and probably biggest money spinner) in the Hillsong calendar is the annual Hillsong Conference. Tickets for the event in July 2013, to be held at the Allphones Arena in Sydney, are already on sale and the event features prominently on the home page of Hillsong.com.
The conference is being marketed under the banner ‘This is revival’ with streams on ’empowering leadership’ and ‘creative worship’. Guest speakers and artists featured on the event website are displayed with their own Twitter hashtags. Prices range from $199 to $299 for a single adult, depending on how long you attend for.
Here’s a promo video for this year’s conference.
There are also spin off events catering for men (Men’s 2012 Conference), women (The Colour Sisterhood, which carries the slogan: ‘Heat it up baby, heat is up’) and children (Kidsong and Jam).
Events are marketed through email, social media, direct mail, online video – with the production values of a music video – and word of mouth through services and connect groups.
Marketing marriage with Gloria Jean’s?
Gloria Jean’s products at Hillsong
Contrary to often-repeated claims, Hillsong denies that it owns Gloria Jean’s Coffee, or runs any co-marketing programs that could be mutually beneficial.
In a statement to Mumbrella, Hillsong said: “Hillsong Church does not own or operate Gloria Jean’s and has no legal or financial ties to the company. Gloria Jean’s is a privately owned business and the owners of Gloria Jean’s have publically acknowledged that they attend Hillsong Church. It is also a well known fact that Gloria Jean’s coffee is sold at Hillsong Church. Church is all about community and anytime Australians gather, they love to socialise around a good cup of coffee – and we have chosen to sell Gloria Jean’s coffee at our church on the weekend, an iconic Australian brand.”
One of the busiest areas of Hillsong Church is the gift shop (known as the Resource Centre), where you can buy books, CDs, DVDs, USBs, Bibles, T-shirts, tote bags, coffee (branded ‘The Home Blend’ – not Gloria Jean’s), which are all available online too.
The shop made me think of the one bit of the Bible I can remember. When Jesus gets angry at people who’ve turned a temple into a market (Matthew 21:12). “He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.” But then Hillsong would argue that the proceeds go back into the church (and good causes).
I would guess that 80% of the congregation in the city service in Sydney on Sunday was of ethnic origin. Hillsong’s marketing material – from direct mail collateral to video content – reflects Hillsong’s ‘inclusive’ appeal.
A Hillsong spokesperson says: “Hillsong Church continues to grow with average, everyday Australians looking for a place of worship to call home. There are no criteria for joining our church. It is a ‘come as you are’ congregation. Hillsong Church is made up of people from all ages, cultures, and backgrounds.”
Hillsong has a strong presence on Facebook (music pages Hillsong United and Hillsong Live have 4.9m fans, Hillsong Church has 119,000) and YouTube (126,000 subscribers and 41m views from four channels). Less so on Twitter (Hillsong Church has 217,000 followers, Hillsong United has 388,000). It also runs a popular blog site, Hillsong Collected.
Hillsong on iPhone and iTunes
Podcasts of Brian Houston’s sermons are available on iTunes. In the last two months, Hillsong reports an average of 185,000 downloads per month.
The copy on the landing page for the iPhone app, reads:
Be a tap away from Hillsong Church where ever you are.
Connect with Senior Pastors Brian & Bobbie Houston, Joel Houston, Joel & Julia A’Bell, Reuben Morgan, Gary Clarke, Carl Lentz, Phil Dooley and that’s not all.
Be the first to get content from Hillsong UNITED, Hillsong LIVE, Hillsong TV including blogs, photos, music videos and so much more.
All this presented in a convenient magazine-style layout designed to inspire you and fill you with faith for what God can do in your life & your local church.
Ranges from floor stickers and flyers to writing ‘Jesus is love’ in text-speak in the sky on Easter Day, the same slogan that’s written on the side of Hillsong public shuttle buses.
So why is Hillsong so powerful?
I’ve heard a bunch of theories on this. It’s not just, of course, because of slick marketing and music. Some say Hillsong has tapped into something that is ‘missing’ in young people’s lives. A sense of purpose and belonging. A relevance in a cold, apathetic world.
And yes, everyone needs to believe in something. Some scientists think (and I agree) that there is a gene that codes for the need to believe – as powerful as the instinct to reproduce, eat or breathe. Hillsong has packaged its beliefs better than anyone I can think of. Even Coca-Cola.
The reasons people join Hillsong that I’ve heard are varied too. To make friends. Find a girlfriend. To give up smoking. To be a better person. Be part of something that is ‘young, fun and growing’. But mostly because a friend has taken them along to a service, and they’ve ‘found God’.
And let’s be clear. The Hillsongers I have met, or who know through other people, are not brainwashed members of some cult. They are normal, intelligent people who have bought into a way of living. A brand. The difference between the Hillsong brand and others is that it is not just part of their life, like a Qantas flight or a Tim Tam. It is their life.
I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. And I certainly do not believe in some of things that Hillsong supposedly stands for (such as homosexuality being ‘unnatural’ or the theory of intelligent design). Although it cannot be denied that this church does a lot of good for a lot of people.
But I do believe it just might be Australia’s most powerful brand.
Marketers. Watch and learn.