The Francis Effect: the Marketing Edition

30 Sep The Francis Effect: the Marketing Edition

Two of my colleagues and I had the good fortune of volunteering on a media relations team on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week as Pope Francis started his U.S. trip in D.C. Our assignment at his mass at The Basilica at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was manning a 10-story media riser, where many of the broadcast journalists covering the event were positioned to document the day.

I initially planned to write about that experience and the journalists and process tied to covering such a historic event. And, I will definitely have to do that at some point soon. But an event that I participated in today changed my mind, while still keeping it focused on that amazing experience last week.

This morning, I was participating in a TMA “Hear from Your Peers” event, led by Bob London of London, Ink. The discussion centered on how marketing and branding should be dictated by what your customers want as opposed to what we, as marketers, think they need.

I can’t help but be struck by the parallels in this mornings’ discussion and the Pope’s efforts to re-energize the Catholic Church based on communities’ needs. It is a real-time case study, and he is the church’s coincidental chief branding officer.

When I use marketing terms in the paragraphs to follow, I mean to use them respectfully and as analogies. I have the utmost reverence for the Pope as a religious and spiritual leader, and take my queues on this parallel from him and his very public goals to transform the global perception of the Catholic Church and its service to its members and potential members through inclusion.

Last Tuesday, before the Pope landed in D.C., I saw pre-arrival coverage on The Today Show that featured an interview with Christian author William Paul Young, who wrote “The Shack.” Young mused that “The Catholic Church is a humongous ship that doesn’t turn quickly, and yet you are kind of watching miraculous things happen” under the papacy of Francis.

There is no disputing the analogy of the Catholic Church as a large ship that doesn’t turn quickly, but what is more compelling than miraculous is what Pope Francis has been able to achieve. Consider that a 78 year-old man, elected by the College of Cardinals, who doesn’t watch TV or use the Internet, has led a massive organizational and brand transformation through an incredibly pragmatic combination of authenticity and dialogue.

As marketers, we tend more often than not to be guilty (sorry, it’s the Catholic in me) of making assumptions about what our customers’ pain points are, why they may or may not choose our services or solutions, and what they need or may value from our businesses. As Bob so aptly observed at this morning’s TMA event, “we look through our lens and neglect to look through theirs.”

Authenticity and dialogue are the core ways Pope Francis reverses the vantage point of that lens.

His authenticity is most clearly expressed in his humility and focus on the poor. He has chosen not to live in the papal apartments but rather in a more modest residence inside the Vatican, his papal car is a Fiat, and his conversation style is simple and direct. During his travels, he wanders into crowds to talk to people, adores children, and stops for pizza. He asks for prayers from those who pray and well wishes from those who don’t.

Through these actions — which I would argue are purposeful, but not contrived — he imparts a sense that we are all on the same playing field and that our goals (inclusive of his) are common ground. He is not the marketer or sales person telling us what we need – he is the business partner that listens, draws on similar experiences, takes into account extraordinary challenges that are unfamiliar to him, and gains trust. He achieves all of this simply by being thoughtful and genuine in his solutions for the people he serves.

He has bolstered that authenticity through an escalation of dialogue on legacy messages from the Vatican, to the Catholic community, and even to those outside of the religion. He has framed Catholic dogma and the community to be more inclusive and ready to be of service to buyers who clearly want and need what the community is offering.

This goes hand-in-hand with one of Bob’s discussion points this morning: an imperative of “agenda-less customer conversations.” In other words, the best opportunity to learn how to market and grow your business is when customer conversations are unscripted and real, and where listening takes precedent over talking.

Pope Francis has mastered this. There is little emphasis on hierarchy in his leadership – he has actually broken it down to some degree. He interacts with everyone from bishops to parish priests and lay people with equal care and consideration. Just this past week, he made a call to U.S. Bishops to move among their congregations to understand them and engage in “authentic dialogue.”

Meanwhile, Bob shared findings from a McKinsey & Company study on “How B2B companies talk past their customers.” The study illustrated the deltas between where IT buyers gather information, versus where marketers invest.

The most significant gaps (areas of little to no investment) were in forums, peer recommendations, and ratings and reviews. It is little wonder to me that marketers slight these areas. All three are frightening territory that hinge on product/service quality and their direct correlation to customer perception. It’s the raw space where the truth emerges about why your business is failing, flat, or growing, and in most cases will create hard work or necessitate tough decisions. For most, it’s just easier to not listen.

Pope Francis has spent time in that raw space and is publicly addressing controversial topics like abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. He is initiating thoughtful dialogue on the balance between dogma and inclusion. His“Who am I to judge?” stance is refreshing to many who are seeking alignment between their secular and spiritual needs.

Being authentic and really digging deep and listening to customers in order to improve business outcomes is not really a new thought, but it continues to feel novel because it’s something that is rarely done and requires us to step outside of our comfort zones. We must risk rejection while giving control to customers – both things that instill a sense of fear or unease. We’re also uncomfortable with change, but listening to customers and really connecting with them often requires that we change our traditional approaches to marketing.

And while we wrestle with these challenges, we have an 78 year-old man, who doesn’t watch TV, doesn’t use the Internet, and I guarantee you has never heard of McKinsey & Company – putting himself and his organization out there and listening to what his constituents want. The so-called “Francis effect” is a modern day branding playbook that we get to watch get written in real-time. Hard data on the increase in Catholics or return to Catholicism will come over time, but if favorability polls and infrastructure taxing attendance at events in D.C., Philadelphia and New York City last week are any indication, it’s an approach that’s working and worth emulating.

Lisa Throckmorton
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