While in college, Bill Swanson considered going into the ministry. But he wound up joining his father in the family business, Nokomis-based Tri County Air Conditioning & Heating. While building the residential side of the company, Swanson shared his faith with friends and family. But it wasn’t until he and his wife made a missionary trip to Russia that he decided to combine his Christian beliefs with his business.
“While I was away, the word ‘comfort’ took on a whole new meaning to me,” recalls Swanson. “I was physically uncomfortable a lot in Russia. Tri County is really a comfort business, so at that point in time, I said, ‘Let’s take care of the other comforts too.’”
Today, Tri County’s mission is “to comfort all in such a way that they are compelled to tell others about their experience” and “it honors the Great Comforter, Jesus Christ,” says Swanson. “We don’t go out and say, ‘You need to believe in Jesus,’ but if someone asks us, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, we’ll tell you.”
Business owners like Swanson who incorporate their Christian faith into their companies often feel it’s not a choice but a calling from a higher power. For them, the positive reasons for doing so, whether personal, spiritual or economic, far outweigh any potential drawbacks.
“Early on in my desire to express my faith in my business, I was very concerned how it might impact us negatively,” says Dean A. Burnside, president of North Venice–based Macy’s Termite & Pest Control Co. “But over time, it just became this is who we are. If that’s an attraction to you, great. If it’s a turnoff, I’m sorry, but I don’t lose sleep over who we might be offending or turning off because of who we are.”
At Bradenton-based accounting firm Axiom CPA, founder Joey Brannon says, “For me, the biggest thing is consistency. I think I should be the same person all the time, whether I’m working or hanging out with family or friends. The kind of person you are affects the kind of business you do. If faith is a part of your personal life, it’s going to have an impact on your business, or it should.”
Good For Sales?
These business owners say they aren’t intertwining their faith and business operations to lure customers or boost sales. “I think the reason most companies try to promote their faith through their business is to honor the Lord as the provider and sustainer of their business,” says Don Light Jr., co-area chair of C12 SW Florida, the local chapter of a national networking group for Christian business owners that serves Manatee, Sarasota, Lee and Collier counties and has 50 members.
But sometimes businesses do benefit. C12 compared longtime member companies with 350 American blue-chip companies and found that, from 1995 to 2005, C12 members saw revenue growth of 15.2 percent compared with 4.2 percent for the blue-chip companies, and profit growth of 22.1 percent compared with 8.5 percent for the blue chips.
What could be behind this success? The sheer size of a potential market, for one thing. According to the Pew Forum’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 78.4 percent of adults surveyed—approximately 180 million people—classified themselves as Christian.
“For sure we have added customers because of our values,” says Burnside. “I don’t know of a higher bar you can raise of ethical and moral standards.”
On its website, Macy’s Termite & Pest Control makes a point about striving to do business according to Biblical principles. For Axiom, No. 1 on its list of standards is, “We seek to honor God and put Christian principles into practice in all we do.”
Customers might expect a higher level of honesty or service from a company that espouses its Christian values. “If you’re saying this is what I believe and these are the standards I’m going to hold myself to, you better be ready for people to hold you to those same standards,” says Brannon.
Plenty of consumers find these kinds of religious beliefs appealing. But there are just as many for whom they have no real impact. According to a recent survey by the Barna Group, a California research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture, 37 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to buy a particular brand if they knew it was from a company that promotes the Christian faith. But 58 percent said they would be indifferent.
“A lot of people, if they find something they like, they’ll buy it regardless of whatever might be implied by the brand,” says James M. Curran, associate professor of marketing at USF Sarasota-Manatee. “Ben & Jerry’s has always been associated with environmental causes, and that has meaning to some people, but other people just like the ice cream. If people like a particular product, a lot of the other associations just won’t matter.”
“The majority of folks do not choose a business because of their beliefs,” Swanson agrees. “People choose a business because they trust that the business is competent and caring and trustworthy.”
The Barna Group survey found that for 3 percent of respondents, an overt connection to the Christian faith would make them less likely to do business with a company. And companies that choose to incorporate their faith into their business know that there are risks involved.
“As with any choice you make in marketing to select a particular direction, you in some ways potentially deselect some of your options,” says John Fain, co-owner of Sarasota marketing and PR firm Grapevine Communications. “Some people will look at it and say, ‘Who are they to try to push their religion off on me?’ But I think that’s the case with marketing in general; you can always find people who are going to be offended or alienated or a segment of the market that’s not going to be responsive to your particular marketing message.
“I would try to avoid anything that sounds preachy,” says Fain. He suggests that business owners make their religious beliefs a supporting, not primary, element of their marketing message. “That way it doesn’t say that the business is making any judgments about its customers and their beliefs,” he says. “It just says here’s a great product, a great service, a great business that wants to work with you, and by the way, we hold these values and the values support that we’re going to be good people to work with and people you can trust.”
Christian business owners don’t expect all of their employees to share their faith, but they do expect them to live up to the company’s standards and beliefs. “We actually post our company’s core values in our conference room, and we do use them as a guideline for hiring,” says Burnside.
Not surprisingly, these types of businesses also have a philanthropic side, donating a portion of their profits to charitable causes or encouraging and allowing employees to volunteer their time. Both Macy’s and Tri County also help customers in need, whether through prayer or some other kind of assistance. “Our corporate chaplain will visit people in the hospital,” says Burnside. “Talk about building customer loyalty. We’re trying to take it beyond just killing their bugs; we really care.”
Marketing Other Faiths
Christians aren’t the only religious group to incorporate their faith into their businesses. Locally and nationally, chambers of commerce are devoted to members of particular faiths, such as Islam, Catholicism, or Judaism. And those members may make particular efforts to market their businesses to customers who share their beliefs.
“We have significant experience working with Jewish businesses and Jewish publications,” says John Fain of marketing and PR firm Grapevine Communications. “This group makes even stronger efforts to market to each other and always have a strong commitment to do business with each other. You can see this in their marketing efforts by supporting Jewish publications and by including a Jewish message in many of their ads. As to other groups, I cannot speak to their marketing efforts, but I would believe the various groups
support their members.”
But sheer numbers mean that Southwest Florida consumers are more likely to encounter a business espousing a Christian message than one proclaiming its Jewish or Muslim faith. According to the Pew Forum’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 77 percent of respondents in Florida identified themselves as Christians, and less than 7 percent classified themselves as members of other religious faiths.