He’ll be filling a packed house at Madison Square Garden this Friday.
All the major networks anticipate his every move.
And yes, he’s on the cover of People.
As Pope Francis delivers the message of the Catholic Church to a rapt American audience, his success as a leader can be viewed not only from a theological perspective, but as a compelling case study in strategic rebranding.
A papal visit to the U.S. is not a new phenomenon—Francis has three predecessors who’ve landed here. Yet, the updated message, tone and culture of this new “people’s Pope” are indicative of a dramatic shift akin to large-scale image overhauls seen in the secular business realm.
Driven by a moral philosophy rather than revenue, Pope Francis’ efforts can nonetheless be viewed as analogous to those of a CMO of an established global entity. As such, his actions are reminders of 3 core aspects of a well-executed marketing campaign:
Reaching the Target Audience
Establishing a meaningful connection that resonates means adapting to changing demographics. The Pope’s focus on issues such as poverty and global warming, along with his softening stance toward gays and lesbians, could gain traction with younger Catholics, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. As with any major reworking of a brand, alienating some audiences is inevitable, and many will be watching closely to see the response and its impact.
Reacting to Negativity
When corporations, non-profits, and other institutions experience poor publicity, rebranding can be an effective tool to distract from mistakes of the past or improve perceptions moving forward. Various church scandals, including financial mismanagement and sexual abuse, have severely tarnished the church’s reputation. Francis’ commitment toward a more transparent Vatican is seen by many as addressing these concerns, potentially renewing many believers’ faith in the church hierarchy.
Even the most staid, risk-averse companies must reevaluate their focus to maintain vitality and a sense of purpose in an ever-changing cultural landscape. The selection of the first Pope from the southern hemisphere, an emphasis on inclusion, and Francis’ approachable demeanor all align with a more modern and welcoming image. Even non-Catholics have begun warming to Francis and his message, with CNN tracking positive sentiment in social media and dubbing him “not just for Catholics anymore.”
Rarely do we the have the opportunity to witness first-hand a global rebranding effort of this magnitude. Will the pews remain full after Francis has left? The results will be informative for us all.