New Pope presents rebranding opportunity for Catholic Church

Pope Francis has taken the helm of an insitution in crisis and under intense scrutiny, writes Kim Benjamin.

Few would argue that any organisation needs more marketing and branding help than the Roman Catholic church, and Pope Francis, the new pontiff and successor to Pope Benedict XVI, certainly has his work cut out for him.

To say that the general perception of the church is not positive is an understatement. During Pope Benedict's reign, its reputation was rocked by sexual-abuse cover-ups, financial corruption and, more recently, allegations of a gay sex scandal.

The church is also looking to reverse a steep decline in the number of practising Catholics, particularly in Europe and the US, as well as overcome the views of those who believe that the Vatican is out of date and irrelevant to today's society. The church is, however, reporting growth in attendance levels in certain areas, including Africa, China and South America.

Like many big brands, the Catholic church has lost its formerly deft touch, with its focus, values and personality becoming less than clear. Many have viewed the election of Pope Francis, therefore, as an opportunity for a new leader to alter people's perceptions and earn back their trust. How the church handles any further allegations, and whether it can boost attendance, will have a big part to play in its future.

How can the new pontiff bring Catholicism into the 21st century and make the faith more relevant to the majority? We asked George Pitcher, an Anglican priest and co-founder of communications consultancy Luther Pendragon, and Steve Dixon, founder of brand consultancy Brandthing and previously executive creative director at agency Propaganda, which devised campaigns for the Church of England.

CATHOLICISM STATS

1.2bn - Number of Catholics in the world

8.8m - Number of confirmations in 2010

Source: Vatican Statistical Yearbook of the Church (latest edition)

DIAGNOSIS - Two experts on how the Roman Catholic church can restore trust and grow under the new Pope

GEORGE PITCHER - Anglican priest, co-founder, Luther Pendragon and former Public Affairs Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury

The Roman Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion adherents aren’t customers or clients of even stakeholders in any manageable sense. And eternal verities aren’t subject to makeovers and relaunches.

But the Pope himself is a brand and has an image to be managed. This one has gone for the brand values of humility and poverty, assuming the qualities of St Francis of Assisi and eschewing the grander trappings of office.

But he’ll know that none of this image projection will count for anything if he turns out to have cosied up to the military junta in Argentina during the Seventies. Then he has the grotesque burdens of the child-rape scandals and institutional corruption to address. If he grasps these nettles, his could be one of the greatest reforming papacies ever. But that means nothing short of a Reformation.

That’s what we Anglicans do. What’s the point of the Church of Rome if it reforms? That’s not a question of image but of substance and one that Roman Catholics have to answer if they are to emerge with their authority intact into the 21st century.

REMEDY

- Streamline the executive so that lines of accountability are clear.

- Cut out the culture of deference, patronage and secrecy.

- Make the church transparent so that the good and bad is available for scrutiny.

STEVE DIXON - Founder, Brandthing (former executive creative director at Propaganda, which worked on CofE campaigns)

There are few bigger, branded institutions than the Catholic church - and even fewer in as much trouble.

It is an institution that has, on countless occasions, admitted to protecting its brand 'image' by covering up criminal activity. And when it comes to possessing worldly goods it can put merchant bankers to shame.

So it's worth highlighting a couple of key sections from its brand manual (The Bible). Luke quotes Jesus: 'Come to me little children for the kingdom of heaven is yours', as does Mark: 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor...

Then come, follow me.'

It seems the word and the reality have come unstuck. And experience suggests that consumers are not happy to engage with brands that lie.

Even a customer base threatened with eternal damnation if it doesn't 'follow' eventually stops forgiving.

REMEDY

- Ensure that word and deed are one and the same thing.

- Be insight-driven. Reconnect with consumer nature, attitude and need-state. (More listening, less preaching, perhaps?)

- Manage out what's bad/bland.

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