About a year ago, I was at an event with two of the Wesleyan Covenant Association‘s Leadership Council members when one said to the other “You are always marketing, aren’t you?” to which the other affirmed with a smile. I filed away that casual comment in case it provided insight into their procedures and values, and it turns out it did!
We know now that the Wesleyan Covenant Association is, in fact, a master of marketing. It’s not just their slick website and catchy phrases. Several of the Leadership Council have degrees in marketing or business. Their originator even co-founded* a video production company, the same one that is hired to produce the videos for the WCA. And really, any large church pastor (as some are) has to have some marketing savvy to reach the masses at this scale. So it is safe to assume that, in contrast to the Council of Bishops or the Uniting Methodists, the WCA is head and shoulders above most of us when it comes to marketing savvy.
That awareness is crucial because it helps us better understand that some of their actions are marketing techniques to get Methodists to respond in the way they want (we saw them try this earlier in 2018).
But fear not, we can understand their most recent action by looking at a grocery store.
Grocery Store Marketing
At a grocery store, each item has a different profit margin, and it doesn’t depend on their retail price. An item that costs $5 may have a $2 profit margin, while a $10 item may only have a $1 profit margin. The cost of the item does not necessarily mean the amount of profit for the grocery store. So if they are selling multiple types of a single kind of produce, how do they encourage buyers to select the one with the highest profit margin?
The marketing technique of “decoy pricing” accomplishes this by knowing that humans don’t want to be cheap or spend too much, and consumers will often pick the middle of the road item. So grocery stores take their highest profit margin item and price them directly between a high and a low-cost item. For example, on the same shelf with three different versions of the same item:
- Item #1 costs $6 and returns a $1 profit
- Item #2 costs $8 and returns a $3 profit
- Item #3 costs $10 and returns a $1 profit
So you see how the store encourages the shopper to buy the middle option (Item #2) because it will presumedly be a reasonable balance between cost and quality. In reality, Item #2 costs the grocery store the same amount as Item #1, but they make 200% more profit off of #2. It may even be the same quality as Item #1, but the customer fell for the marketing and paid $2 more than they needed to.
In short, “decoy pricing” is a marketing technique to get people to select the middle option, knowing humans tend to avoid the extremes, and they pick the perceived “Golden Mean” as the best between two extremes.
Church Plans on a…Shelf?
Okay. Great? What does a grocery store have to do with the Church?
Consider the above lineup of the current plans for The United Methodist Church to vote on at the end of February 2019.
The spectrum is from progressive to regressive. The progressive side moves The UMC forward together regarding LGBTQ inclusion. The regressive side turns back the UMC away from growth and towards multiple denominations through chosen divergence or expulsion of progressives.
If the Plans were on a shelf in the grocery store, the average consumer would assume that the “moderate” plans in the middle (the Connectional Conferences plan and the OneChurch plan) would be most desirable because they aren’t strongly progressive or regressive. That gives them a boost when you consider the number of churches and pastors in the “Methodist Middle” and the everpresent “Golden Mean” appeals to moderation.
But the marketing problem for the WCA is that it supports the Traditionalist Plan, which is an extreme position. Thus, to get their plan to be perceived as “less extreme” requires a rearranging of that shelf. Enter marketing to save the day!
So now we can better understand a recent action by the WCA, and how it is more like a “decoy price” than a real hoped-for conclusion.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association recently pitched a Plan of Dissolution on its website (here’s the PDF). It dissolves The UMC entirely and renders the connectional properties to the different annual conferences. It’s not just regressive but completely dissolves The UMC’s existence!
So when you add that Plan to the lineup, see how it shifts in the graphic above?
The most progressive stays the same, but now the most regressive is the Dissolution Plan. Both ends may be unacceptable to the average Methodist as “too extreme.” But suddenly now there are three plans in the center: Connectional Conferences, OneChurch, and the Traditionalist Plan. No longer is the WCA’s preferred plan the most extreme, but it is now an acceptable “more moderate” plan. They have successfully changed its perception without changing its content one iota.
Do some in the WCA want the Dissolution Plan to pass? Of course—their President sent in a version of it in 2016. But many more want the Traditionalist Plan to pass, so this decoy plan’s purpose is to move their preferred plan to a better position.
The coming months are the selling periods for the various plans, and the average United Methodist would do well to be aware of marketing and spin to keep the focus on the real deal.
- The Simple Plan is unashamedly progressive, was proposed first in 2016, though it also makes space for Traditionalists not to confess doctrine they do not agree with.
- The two moderate plans (OneChurch and Connectional Conferences) occupy the center of the conversation, making space for progressives and traditionalists alike.
- The Traditionalist Plan is unashamedly Traditionalist (regressive), and does not make space for the continued existence of Progressives in The UMC.
Any decoy plans that tilt this lineup should be viewed with suspicion, especially if their purpose is not passage but to make regressive Methodism more palatable.
The marketing is already happening. One of the WCA supporters pitched it to me on Twitter as a “fifth plan” to add to my lineup, hoping I would take the bait with usual progressive outrage. I didn’t take the bait, and I hope the delegates to the General Conference 2019 don’t either.
One side note is that a person could look at the progressive Simple Plan and say that it is the same effect as the decoy pricing: that its purpose is to make the One Church Plan be less on the extreme. But the lack of a genuinely progressive plan is precisely why there’s so much enthusiasm behind the Simple Plan. Whereas Traditionalists would want the Traditionalist Plan to pass instead of Dissolution, Progressives would want the Simple Plan to pass instead of OneChurch. So it is not a “decoy plan” but is the actual hoped-for goal. That’s the difference between them.
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Editor update: changed “co-owner” to “co-founder” per comments below.