(Photo: The Stone Agency)
When controversy erupted over Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy's comments in favor of traditional marriage last month, thousands of Americans showed their support for the company with their wallets and helped reveal the buying power behind an emerging consumer group that one expert calls "Faith Driven Consumers."
Chris Stone, a founding partner of The Stone Agency, is a Certified Brand Strategist and an advertising and marketing integration specialist. He is also the founder of the Faithnomics blog and FaithDrivenConsumer.org, a website that helps make conscientious Christian consumers aware of the values of companies so they can make informed buying decisions that are in line with their faith.
According to Stone, this group of Faith Driven Consumers (FDCs) is "large enough to matter" but small enough for companies to engage. Although 70 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as Christian, he says, a much smaller percentage (15 percent) of people actually fit into the FDC niche.
"Faith Driven Consumers are a subset of that group, and those whose faith, or their worldview, which is driven by the Bible, is significant enough in their life to be a major factor in their everyday decisions, including their consumer decisions," said Stone.
According to The Stone Agency research, although they are a minority there are 46 million FDCs in the U.S., and together they have about $1.75 trillion in spending power. The size of the FDC niche spends more annually than many other niche groups, including Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, Muslims and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Stone suspects that the majority of those who took part in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day would be considered FDCs, and he believes they will continue to support the restaurant chain, in part because of its values.
"I think that you're going to continue to see support. I think people are still talking about it. What's going to be interesting is to see how other brands who are compatible with these Faith Driven Consumers will reach out and say, 'Hey, you're welcome here,'" he said.
FaithDrivenConsumer.org rates companies based on a number of different criteria, and then assigns each company a rating of up to five stars. Companies are rated based on their stances on pro-life and traditional sexuality worldviews, whether or not they value wholesome entertainment and the use of non-pornographic materials, and their level of corporate responsibility, among other things.
The site rates Chick-fil-A at four-and-a-half stars – a rating not matched by any other company but Hobby Lobby craft stores at this point. The site says Chick-fil-A "strongly aligns with a Biblical worldview," but also claims the company could grow in the areas of active pro-life support and corporate responsibility.
According to The Stone Agency research, 65 percent of FDCs are unsatisfied with their relationships within the marketplace and are looking for more satisfying ones. FDCs are not only looking to be good stewards by supporting companies that share, or at least don't seem to oppose, their values, but they're also looking to buy from companies they feel are welcoming to them.
The first step for a company that is not FDC-friendly but wants to be, Stone says, is to become neutral on cultural issues like same-sex marriage. Many companies feel pressured to get high ratings from groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for equal rights for LGBT individuals, but companies that do so seeking to be inclusive are actually excluding FDCs, says Stone.
He also believes holding a "buycott" is more effective than a boycott, as Chick-fil-A's Appreciation Day has shown.
"Buycotting is far more powerful than boycotting," said Stone. "Boycotting deprives you of something, buycotting allows you to make stewardship choices based upon something that you're going to do anyway."
Stone's website for FDCs encourages Christians to think "Faith First" when making buying decisions, with the hope that other companies will take notice and change to make Christians feel more welcomed.