Going where no church has gone before

A sampling of the billboards that have been installed in South Africa. Top: M1 Street in Johannesburg; Botton (L-R): N2 highway and Umgeni Station in Durban. (Images courtesy of Alvin Makunike.)
A sampling of the billboards that have been installed in South Africa. Top: M1 Street in Johannesburg; Botton (L-R): N2 highway and Umgeni Station in Durban. (Images courtesy of Alvin Makunike.)

Amidst the bustle of busy streets and highways in South Africa, welcoming faces and messaging are inviting commuters to invest in a new commodity: their souls. 

Unlike other advertisements perched above picket fences and mounted atop rolling hills, new billboards invite people to find community and joy through Christian fellowship -- an endeavor unheard of before The United Methodist Church signage was erected this month.

It is a "first of its kind for a church to be advertised in this huge way," said Alvin Tiri Makunike, the Director of Communications for the South Africa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. "Mostly, these platforms are used by corporations selling their products." 

The campaign is one of the many opportunities that United Methodist Communications (UMCom), the denomination's global communication agency, has seized on behalf of The United Methodist Church to encourage people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus.

"What our Conference in partnership with UMCom did is history in the making for our church. This is true evangelism in today's world," said William Gasseler, Central District Delegate to the Central Conference. "Growth of the church is inevitable. These billboards have brought souls to Christ."

These trailblazing billboards are a culmination of years of experience in relationship building, ad placements and learning to adapt to help local churches and ministries to thrive in all environments and situations.

Though UMCom's seasonal ad campaigns focus heavily on coverage within the United States, partnerships in the Central Conferences continue to expand, noted the agency's Director of Marketing and Advertising, Greg Petree. "We first worked with Nigeria at the end of 2019, running through 2020 on billboard advertisements. This presented the marketing and creative teams the opportunity to work with new mediums such as sail-like billboards that include holes to alleviate canvas stress caused by winds." 

Advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic created a unique challenge. But by the end of 2020, United Methodist Communications, in partnership with The Côte d'Ivoire United Methodist Church and The All Africa Conference of Churches, launched the "Great Caravan of Peace" advertising and outreach campaign calling for peace during politically tense times

The campaign was "first supposed to cover more area with more stops. As COVID spread, we had to tailor it. But there was still a strong effort to execute prior to the elections. That was a driving factor in the tour and its timing," explained Petree. The UMCom teams worked with staff and contractors in Africa, consulting about promo items, billboards, posters, flyers, busses, and more. As a result, the tour became a local church-executed event under the agency's guidance and funding.

In both efforts, the team encountered technical difficulties during Zoom meetings, language barriers that hindered conversations, money transfer security concerns and currency conversion issues that all impacted working and negotiating with vendors in a foreign land. However, UMCom overcame these obstacles to share a message of hope and peace. 

In 2022, United Methodist Communications' team is continuing their partnerships within the Central Conference following their previous campaigns in Nigeria, the Philippines and Cote d'Ivoire.

The revolutionary out-of-home (OOH) advertising campaign in South Africa is now in full swing with billboard placements throughout Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. 

Makunike added that the billboard design "makes one look at it, and more importantly remember it despite the countless distractions on the road from speeding cars, pedestrians and even weather conditions. The United Methodist Church in South Africa will never be the same again."

Many steps had to happen for these impactful displays to become a reality.

Throughout the advertising crafting process, sustained communication was essential to ensure that messages were relevant to the targeted local communities and that the local churches in the area were equipped to wholly benefit from the increased awareness efforts.  

United Methodist Communications worked with Makunike to determine the scope and duration of the promotion and identify billboard vendors and locations. The agency's creative team then sourced photographs from the conference and created five billboard design options. The ad concepts were vetted, and two were selected and presented to Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala, who made the ultimate decision. The final image was crafted into ready-to-use graphic files and sent directly to the South African billboard vendor.

"We all met as a group every week (if not every other week) to make sure that we were all on the same page with the purpose and the message," noted Troy Dossett, UMCom's Interim Director of Creative Strategy.

UMCSouthAfrica.org, the newly launched website created by UMCom's web team, laid the groundwork to communicate information about things happening throughout the South Africa Annual Conference, including advertising campaigns. "The billboards will promote the site where its visitors can find a local church, learn about UMC organizations and local events, read new pieces and get to know Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala," shared Shelia Mayfield, Director of Development for Global Communications Technology for the communications agency.

The communications agency is currently exploring the possibility of video board ad placements in South African shopping malls following the billboard roll-out. Efforts may next expand to Mozambique.

Potential promotional placements in the Philippines are also in the preliminary discussion and planning stage.

"We want people around the globe to know that, whether they live in a bustling city or a remote village, God sees them and loves them. The United Methodist Church is there to help them find community in faith, grow in their relationship with Christ and encourage them along life's journey," added Poonam Patodia, Chief Marketing Officer for United Methodist Communications. 

International advertising is a key component in the fulfillment of United Methodist Communication's mission: working to change the world by sharing Jesus Christ's gospel by communicating to all people and places and in all the ways they can. 

*Brenda Smotherman is a Senior Public Relations Manager at United Methodist Communications.

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