I can’t get enough of the new pope, and apparently I’m not alone. Google “pope-francis” and you get 656 million results about someone who has been going by that name for just a few weeks. And whether or not Pope Francis is able to take the Catholic Church in a new direction, he’s already demonstrating how a damaged brand can be protected -- even enhanced -- by focusing attention on initiatives that counter objections to the brand in new ways.
The Catholic Church’s problems are well-chronicled, led by the painful clergy-sex scandal, its lingering effects, and more recently the tales of stolen records and Vatican misconduct. But these days, the Church’s problems are mentioned only in passing, as in this story from Reuters:
The 76-year-old former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina has inherited a Vatican rocked by a scandal in which documents leaked to the media spoke of alleged corruption in its administration and depicted prelates as fighting among themselves to advance their careers.
But that’s the fourth paragraph of a story that focuses instead on something new. Here’s the lead:
Beginning a busy program of Easter events, Pope Francis on Thursday urged Catholic priests to devote themselves to helping the poor and suffering instead of worrying about careers as Church "managers."
That’s just marketing manna from heaven: The pope is busy. He’s telling priests to help the poor and suffering. (Who can be against that?) And he’s telling priests to get out there and help people instead of sitting around in “introspection,” which is a nice word for squabbling.
Leading by example another key for brands
Almost overshadowing the pope’s efforts to refocus the Church so far are stories about his courtesy and unadorned lifestyle. He called a friend on his birthday and left him a voicemail. He returned to a hotel to pay for his stay during the Vatican conclave. He even called a Buenos Aires newsstand to let people know he wasn’t able to keep getting papers delivered to his apartment there. Francis reportedly signs his name without the word Pope, attends morning Mass with the Vatican staff, and lives in a Vatican hotel instead of the special papal residence.
Compare that approach to the one used by the poor bloke who was in charge of British Petroleum at the time of the Gulf oil spill. You remember him, right? He was the one who was overheard saying, “I just want my life back.” He got it back, as you recall, after he was fired.
These days BP runs all kinds of television commercials about what it’s done for the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually the Catholic Church will have more to say about how it has addressed its problems. But in the meantime Pope Francis is telling the world he plans to be an agent for change; and he’s building momentum for that change by leading by example and showing humanity.
Of course I don’t think what Pope Francis has done has its basis in branding, but it seems certain to have a positive impact. And that’s good, because the Church has another marketing problem for Francis: audience building.