Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and UU

In the last few years we have seen two iconic American automobile companies killed by the incompetent management of General Motors. Any car buff who isn't also a corporate executive can tell you why they died; they were niche products- the best in their niches- but the managers never understood that.

The Oldsmobile was the luxury car for those who despised Cadillacs. Its customers were an uniquely American blend of status seeking and puritanical reverse snobbery... it was everything the Cadillac was at half the price; so somehow buying it was not an extravagance, but sensibly seeking good value for the dollar.

The Pontiac line was simply the highest performance motor vehicle that it was possible for normal mortals to buy. It was the Ferrari at one tenth the price- and GTO and Trans Am owners would often tell you that in normal street corner to street corner driving where a a full race engine couldn't wind up, they were better than the Ferrari. They were the heroes of number one hit songs, movies, TV shows, and frequently at the top of the most-stolen lists.

But GM tried to turn a niche product into a full product line, econoboxes, sedans, etc., just like every other automobile. It evidently never occurred to them that Olds and Pontiac customers didn't want econoboxes and "sensible" sedans, and that those who did already had brand names they were loyal to. Requiescat in pace, American Icons.

What does this have to do with UU? Unitarian Universalism is a niche religion, as Unitarianism and Universalism before them had been. At some levels, UUs understand this; there are many jokes- composed by UUs- to demonstrate how different we are. But many UUs don't seem to understand another facet of niche products- that they are a fixed percentage of the market, neither growing nor falling without some unusual circumstance at work.

UU's market share has fallen in recent decades because of some competition, just as GTO and Trans Am sales fell slightly whenever a new model Mustang came out. Some of the more spiritual types became Pagans or liberal Christians. Some of the ones who were strictly political action types left when secular action groups became more viable. Some of those who were UUs only because we would marry them when nobody else would have now been welcomed back to their preferred churches.

But the spiritual types who also valued reason and seeking stayed. (And thank you, Boston, for hurting their feelings by disaffiliating all the believer organizations) The political activist who also needed fellowship in their lives stayed. We have achieved our market share of the current social structure, after the upheaval of the last few decades.


What this means is that no vast growth program is going to work, any more than a vast advertising campaign can make an F150 customer buy a Celica. The way to increase Celica sales is to make it more of what the Celica buyer is looking for to retain your current customer base, and wait for social change to naturally increase that base- appealing to F150 buyers is a waste of resources. Similarly, the way to grow UU is to make sure it is giving existing UUs more of what brought them here, make it the best UUA it can be, and not waste resources in scarce times trying to attract people who aren't going to stay anyway. Stop doing those things that are driving current UUs away, retain our base, and the numbers will take care of themselves. Something to think about for the upcoming election.

4 comments:

UUFreespirit said...

I believe that UU is simply one organized attempt at embodying and articulating the radically-liberal end of the religious spectrum...a place we have all to ourselves. Even if Unitarian Universalism were to vanish, there would still be a need for something and somebody to represent that "far left end" of the spectrum...as you said, our own special niche. I think the "humanistic, liberative and broadly inclusive" way in religion, the way of critical thinking and questioning, has a distinct legitimacy that will give it relevance for generations and centuries to come -- by whatever name we choose to call it.

Chalicechick said...

Fascinating.

I will have to think about this for quite a bit before I can craft a response.

CC
who, arrogantly, considers that among the richest praise she can give a post.

patrickmurfin said...

Thomas Jefferson once opined in a private letter that every young man living in America as he wrote “will die a unitarian.” He had such faith in reason that he could only envision a free people embracing a “reasonable” religion. Hosea Ballou harbored similar hopes for the good news of universal salvation. In the hay day of the optimistic belief in irreversible evolutionary progress James Freeman Clark and his compatriots really did believe that “the progress of mankind onward and upward forever” included the adoption of a liberal faith. They were mistaken.

The brutality of the Twentieth Century shattered that old Unitarian and Universalist religious optimism. And decades as a scorned minority witnessing the seeming triumph of anti-liberalism and fundamentalism has often driven us inside the walls of our churches as sanctuaries. We hunker down. We hardly expect any better. We accept that we are a “niche,” an acquired taste suitable only for folks exactly like us. And if bad economic times batter us as well, there is need for even more caution.

Look, Unitarian Universalism is neither a Pontiac nor a dandruff shampoo. It can not be marketed like either. It is a religion, or if you please, a religious movement that has a lot to offer folks outside of our self-imposed ghetto.

In recent years the number one thing that brought visitors to our pews was the Belief Net Quiz which informed thousands of folks that they were not alone, but that there were these funny sounding Unitarians Universalists out there who shared their beliefs, world views, and, yes, even comfort with ambiguity. I know because I was a consulting “old timer” on the now seemingly defunct New Comers e-mail list where a lot of these folks came to find out more. And almost every minister I know says that visitors cite the test as the reason that they sought out the church.

It has been a golden opportunity which we have, by in large missed. Why? Because a lot of these seekers--folks who share deep values with us--were too young, too tattooed, too shabby, too undereducated, too underemployed, too military, too Republican, too ugly, too alien, too spiritual, too depressed, too crazy, just too damn different. While chanting bromides about diversity and welcome we too often turned inward into a tight, self-protecting knot like yaks in a blizzard.

Peter Morales understands this. He wants to truly welcome these people. That will make us grow.

TTT said...

"It has been a golden opportunity which we have, by in large missed. Why? Because a lot of these seekers--folks who share deep values with us--were too young, too tattooed, too shabby, too undereducated, too underemployed, too military, too Republican, too ugly, too alien, too spiritual, too depressed, too crazy, just too damn different. While chanting bromides about diversity and welcome we too often turned inward into a tight, self-protecting knot like yaks in a blizzard."


These words stike a cord with me because when I first started attending my local UU church, I felt unwelcomed by certain people.
Fortunetly (for me at least) I stayed and ultimately joined the church last year.

I believe that we as UU's must promote ourselves and be seen in the communities we attempt to change. Flyers, news paper ads, and sound bites won't have the same effect personally knowing and respecting UU's will.

However, if we cling to what we know and are comfortable with for whatever reason! Then we won't connect with anyone and they won't understand or respect us enough to take a closer look @ UUism for them selves.