Pope Francis: Marketer of the Year

In Media, segmentation is destiny.  It’s much easier to be best in the world when you have a tightly defined target segment.  (News for Financial Professionals is easy; news for the average citizen is hard.)  It’s easy to define their problems, it’s easy to understand what emotions the audience feels about the brand, and it’s easy to develop coherent content.

However, as the focus goes back from one tightly defined segment to a broader market, more segments appear, and the message starts to get fuzzy.  This problem comes up regularly for household names– Tide, Coke, Apple.  For a widely known brand, should they focus on their heavy users– who supply the money that keeps the brand in business– or on popular opinion more generally (which includes many people who don’t shop there or even refuse to shop there)?

The answer varies, but it always involves a thoughtful cost/benefit analysis.  A few examples:

  • Should GE worry about people who buy aircraft engines, or the general public?  As a mainly B2B company with direct sales forces, GE focuses its social media on appearing worthy and virtuous to the general public.  They aren’t going to sell a nuclear reactor on Twitter.  But they certainly can reach other stakeholders like voters and investors.  The Badass Machines Pinterest board, the #ecomagination hashtag, even the “We Bring Good Things to Life” TV campaign are about reaching you and me, not buyers.  They need to ensure that nobody sees them as the big bad wolf, and starts to regulate them aggressively.  They also don’t want to scare off investors like pension funds, who don’t need the headaches of a controversial stock.  GE needs to be seen as a good neighbor, and that’s what their B2C advertising is all about.  In the grand scheme, it doesn’t cost GE much, and it’s useful insurance for the brand.
  • WalMart is regularly criticized for having a low-paid workforce.  Recently, their critics dragged Mike Rowe into it, claiming that because he did voiceover on an ad, he must be an advocate of their practices.  So far, Wal-Mart has not attempted to address these labor critics via social media, but have allowed proxies (like Rowe) to do a decent job of defending them.  Wal-Mart knows who its core customers are, and they know that its critics are very unlikely to start shopping there, for cultural reasons as much as economic reasons.  Why bother chasing people who you can’t convert?  No matter how much they spend, they will not convince the haute bourgeoisie to shop there.  The brand would have to change too much to become acceptable.  (Equally, don’t try to sell Whole Foods to NASCAR fans.)  People join brands, and being clear about what you stand for can be powerful, even if not everyone agrees with you.
  • Monsanto has done more for homo sapiens than any other company I can name, by vastly increasing the productivity of agriculture.  Without them and other biotech companies, we would either have food shortages globally, or 3x as much land under cultivation (and very little rain forest left).  People in agriculture and food industry understand the benefits that come from Monsanto’s work.  But people who are less informed on agriculture and food tend to have a negative opinion of them.  How much time should Monsanto spend on educating the agriculturally underinformed?  What’s the cost/benefit?  Will consumers really push back against GMO corn when it’s in over half of what they buy at the supermarket?  Or are the complaints coming from angry people on the fringe?  How seriously should Monsanto take their complaints?

One global brand that has done a remarkable job of reaching out to those outside its core segment is the Catholic Church.  And it’s almost entirely the work of Pope Francis.  The Holy Father has made some remarkably appealing decisions, most of which directly confront the popular positioning of the Catholic Church as Rich, Homophobic, and Out-of-Touch.  In the United States, he is more popular than the Catholic Church.  There’s a good summary of his actions here, but here are a few data points that have come out in the last several months.

  • He has 3.7 million followers on Twitter (not Bieberesque yet, but remarkable for a 78-year-old clergyman)
  • He has publicly refused the trappings of wealth, and dresses simply.
  • He leaves messages on nuns’ answering machines
  • He gives people lifts in his car
  • He kisses lepers
  • He meets with boat people
  • He has said with reference to the GLBT community, “Who am I to judge”
  • He accidentally used the Italian version of the F-word when speaking at St Peter’s.

All these are tremendously powerful data points that are in contrast to longstanding feelings that the church was pompous, rich and out of touch.  And interestingly enough, he holds many unfashionable views which are in lockstep with Catholic orthodoxy, but doesn’t seem to be attacked for them.

He is more popular outside the church than any Pope in memory.  And there’s the rub.  How do you define success for the Catholic Church?  Is it to get more converts?  In which segments?  Reduce churn?  Bring peace to the Earth?  It is with no disrespect that I say the Church needs to decide what success looks like in order to succeed.  Has any of this increased attendance at Mass?  Increased donations?  Increased the number of new priests and nuns?  Or is it enough to just make non-Catholics feel better about the brand (whatever that means)?  It’s good to be liked by people outside your core segment. But if doing so alienates your core without capturing new customers, you have a problem.  Your brand has to stand for something—not just temporary popularity.

But clearly the Pope has changed the minds of literally millions of people around the world about a 2000-year-old brand.  A 2000-year-old brand with clearly articulated messages, and physical locations in almost every neighborhood.  It may hurt the church or help it, but he clearly has changed the way people react to the brand of the Catholic Church in a way no one else has in centuries.

Marketing is about creating relationships with people, and getting them to see you the way you would like to be seen.  By that definition, there is no competition— Pope Francis is the Marketer of the Year.

What that means for the Catholic Church is unclear.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


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