TOP STORY: THE BUSINESS OF RELIGION: Catholic Church’s aggressive marketing reaps rewards

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY _ It has a recognizable name. Revenues have jumped 400 percent in four years and companies come begging for exclusivity rights. Business is so brisk that it’s planning to tap the Internet to expand its market reach.

With results like these, who needs a miracle? Certainly not the Roman Catholic Church.

The world’s largest religious organization has hit its stride in the consumer marketplace, selling everything from religious icons to comfortable wood chairs and soft silk ties.”We are a great museum, like the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York and have much to offer,”said Francesco Riccardi, chief administrator of the Vatican Museums and the chief architect of the church’s merchandising boom.”The Vatican has so many beautiful pieces of art that are stashed away, that few people have seen,”added Chicago rug dealer Armen Minasian, who produces woven rugs adapted from the church’s thick stock of ancient tapestries. The 4-foot-by-6-foot rugs retail at Marshall Fields department stores for up to $5,000 under the name”Vatican Museums Editions.” Few people would dispute the church’s invaluable inheritance. Its enormous stock of antiquated paintings and sculptures are among the world’s finest. Its archives are lined with dusty originals of Cicero and Dante.

But with Pope John Paul II sternly and unequivocally condemning rampant materialism, consumerism and capitalism, should the Vatican be in the business of selling Ferragamo scarves that retail for $162?”It seems to me it’s not immoral for them to sell marketable products,”said William May, a theologian at the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family in Washington.”But whether it’s proper for them to sell high-priced items I think is a legitimate question. It could be a problem if the basic message they’re sending is one that promotes consumerism.” In response to such questions, Riccardi said:”My strategy is to sell a good product, and when possible one with a Christian, Catholic message. If this combination is possible for us, it is the best.” But what is best is not always available, he added.

The Vatican _ which began running a small operating surplus in 1993 after 22 consecutive years of losses _ says it could not possibly pay for the enormous costs required to keep the museums current without employing an aggressive marketing strategy.

What’s more, Riccardi and others recognize that the majority of the 3 million people who annually visit the Vatican Museums _ a collection of galleries within Vatican City _ are art lovers who are not necessarily Catholic.”We need revenues to support all the expenses that the museums have, like guards, conservationists, restorers, researchers,”he said.

So, while visitors can still buy art and history books _ which remain the number one retail item _ or posters and gift cards, they can also pay $40 for a leather-bound photo album and $80 for an umbrella with geometric patterns.

The Vatican sells nearly 400 products, most of which have religious, historic or artistic themes. The museums recently began offering an 18-karat gold medal depicting the statue of Laocoon _ the pagan priest of Apollo who sought to warn his fellow Trojans about a certain wooden horse _ that was excavated in Rome in 1506. Retail price? $840.

Visitors to the Vatican gift shop _ or the new boutique it opened three months ago outside the Vatican walls _ can buy rings, pins, necklaces or wristwatches. They can also cart away something a tad heavier, like a plaster bust of Julius Caesar for $270.

The potential for new bounty seems endless. Riccardi receives at least one unsolicited proposal a week from some company wishing to produce something”exclusively”for the Vatican. The church has about 20 such arrangements now, mostly with Italian companies. Neither the Vatican nor the companies will reveal the terms of these agreements.

The Vatican is also becoming increasingly savvy about marketing techniques.

Later this month, it will introduce a merchandise catalog on CD-ROM that retailers in selected markets in the United States can peruse to order products. The church is also shopping for distributors in Germany, France and England, among other countries, and is designing products tailored to different markets and countries.

In addition, it is developing a World Wide Web site where consumers with access to the Internet will be able to review products and place orders.

The high-tech approach to marketing is meant to complement the Vatican Museums’ catalog, which has been mailed to more than 1.5 million middle- and upper-income consumers in the United States since last Christmas. Catalogs for other countries are in development.

On the retail front, the Vatican has employed J. Edward Connelly Associates Inc., a Pittsburgh group, to find suitable markets for opening boutiques. In Rome, the Vatican is looking for a second retail site in the central city area.

Vatican officials will not divulge revenues or profits from their marketing activity, although they acknowledge a 400 percent increase in revenues compared to four years ago.

The city-state’s 1995 surplus was $1.6 million, four times the profit margin in 1994, and the museums’ product line is said to have helped boost the overall figure.

The most visible jump into the retail market was made by John Paul himself, who became an overnight literary star two years ago with the publication of”Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”The book has sold more than 3 million hardback copies worldwide, one-third of them in the United States, according to publisher Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

The Vatican has reaped millions of dollars from the book’s sales, spending some of it to help rebuild the church in the former Yugoslavia. The balance is set to go to other charities.

In another sharp marketing move, the Vatican released a CD and cassette tape of the pope reciting the rosary to coincide with John Paul’s American tour last October. More than a million copies of the recording are in circulation.

And earlier this year, the Vatican issued a new CD-ROM collection, called”The Treasures of the Vatican.”The 11-disk set retails for about $80 and includes images from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the museums’ Picture Gallery, which features the finest Italian painters of the 12th-18th centuries.

In an attempt to get a piece of the $1 billion annual museum catalog business, the Vatican contracted with Museum Art Properties Inc. in New York two years ago to manage and distribute a new mail-order catalog of the museums’ offerings.

The catalog has been tailored to consumer-rich regions, or to households most likely to drop $129 on a”lion’s head folding chair”_ the most popular item in the 52-page catalog, according to Andrew Schlafly, counsel to Museum Art Properties. The company also handles licensing contracts for the Vatican Museums.

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The mail-order business appears to be even more promising than the Vatican’s retail businesses, which are expensive to run.

Several department stores, like Macy’s in New York, sell Vatican collection items. But there are no Vatican stores in the United States, and it’s unclear if one will ever open.

One tony boutique on New York’s Fifth Avenue sold Vatican products, among other expensive designer gift merchandise. But meager business forced the store to close last year.”There’s a tremendous secular interest in Vatican art,”Schlafly said. But he noted that consumers have become accustomed to ordering merchandise from a catalog, particularly since many of the items are bought as gifts.

The catalog, he said,”stacks up well. It’s competitive, it’s lucrative. People like to have access to reproductions. There’s a strong market for it.”

MJP END HEILBRONNER

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