Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the annual SEEK conference hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) in St. Louis. The experience offered amazing case studies in Catholic branding, event planning, and most especially, a beautiful expression of faith among a vibrant young church.
The SEEK gatherings have taken place in cities around the country over the past 20 years, and this was the first in-person event since before the COVID pandemic and the largest to date with an estimated 17,000 people in attendance. As the conference has grown, FOCUS has added tracks beyond their core audience of those involved in college campus ministry to include sessions for those in parish ministry, vocations, community service, Catholic media, and beyond.
By all accounts, it is one of the largest gatherings of Catholics in the country, with an energy level on par with the March for Life and papal visits, yet still able to encourage a tremendous depth of devotion and sense of the sacred.
Marketing an event of this magnitude to such a diverse audience involves complex space planning challenges, including breakout rooms for a variety of presentations, exhibit halls for vendors, entertainment and fellowship spaces, dining areas, lodging, and a space large enough for all in attendance to celebrate Mass and hear keynote speakers. This year, all of this filled the largest conference venue in St. Louis, with the large group events taking place in the attached former NFL stadium.
The FOCUS organization’s attention to detail in their marketing was impressive even before the event began. They built an exciting promotional campaign on social media, teasing keynote speakers, entertainment, and other highlights of the event months ahead of time. The look and feel of the communications remained consistent before, during and after the event. Throughout the venue - which, again, was a convention center attached to an NFL stadium that occupies a couple of large city blocks - there were dozens of portable signage displays, both functional and inspirational, clearly setting a tone and reminding guests that they were not just in a sterile empty shell, but in a space and with a community intended to build the Church with a joyful enthusiasm. Attendees received some free swag and had multiple opportunities to purchase branded merchandise. Registration was thorough and simple, and an army of guest service volunteers and staff helped to carry out the massive undertaking with welcoming charity.
Let’s look at just one example of all of those marketing efforts, the signage. Creating functional, attractive signage to cover a venue that large took an investment of thousands of dollars and many, many hours of planning and labor just to get each piece to its appropriate place in the building, on top of the preliminary preparation and subsequent storage.
Some of the signage was event-specific and will be discarded, but many of the pieces can be repurposed for FOCUS' other events throughout the year and at future conferences, making good use of resources. The investment in signage clearly took a lot of effort, but made a huge impact.
Transforming a space as enormous as this convention center into something that had the look and feel FOCUS wanted to create took tremendous attention to the branding of every detail, and that requires an investment of both time and resources. I discussed with some colleagues at the conference that there's a perception that church events are cheap or feel homemade, and indeed many of them are, especially at the local or parish level. Growing closer to Jesus, which should be the goal of every Catholic event or experience, does not happen automatically with flashy lighting and pretty signs.
However, if we consider the expense of hosting or attending a week-long professional conference, or the excitement created by all of the audio visual effects at a major sporting event or concert, we're not surprised by a steep cost for entry. Shouldn't we be willing to invest in our faith formation in the same way? There is a time and place for simplicity, and of course we always strive to use our resources well. There's also a time and place to go big! Investing in professional branding communicates to your guests, donors, constituents, and the general public that you have a message that should command attention and respect.
Branding certainly has the functional purpose of creating recognizability, but good branding should also be beautiful! The Catholic Church is among the original institutions in the world to elevate the importance of beauty. For millenia we have inspired and invested in some of the most famous works of art known to man. Those of us who have had a profound spiritual experience related to a meaningful song, writing or visual art can testify that those pieces were not just beauty for the sake of vanity, but brought us closer to God.
Experiencing the SEEK conference provided a great reminder of so many elements of our faith I can easily take for granted. In our day-to-day apostolates, we often hear about declines in vocations, church attendance, and participation in the sacraments. Yet there are clearly ministries, including FOCUS, that are producing great fruit in the church!
Most of us, myself included, tend to default to the rhythms of our local parish, and there are certainly blessings and a sense of intimacy in a convenient, familiar community. Sometimes, though, we need a big reminder that we are part of a universal church, and that the Lord is extravagant! Let’s give Him our best effort in return when spreading the Good news!