Strange Bedfellows

Something very interesting happened to the campaign for action on climate change last month. One has often wondered whether it would take an act of God to get people to do something. Well, close enough. A new voice joined the debate and not just any new voice. This one happens to command an audience of over a billion who quite literally take his pronouncements to be the word of God. Yes, last month Pope Francis I issued an encyclical that addressed man’s relationship with nature. An encyclical is one of the Vatican’s most important policy statement formats, essentially a letter to the Bishops of the church setting forth the Pope’s view on an area of Church doctrine. And this one was the first ever to speak of the environment and unequivocally indict man for the degradation of the planet. 

Before we get into why this is interesting for marketers – and it is interesting from at least three perspectives – let’s just savor the delicious irony of a representative of a 2000 year-old organization, known for its arch-conservative views on most subjects, supporting the most up-to-date scientific thinking on the state of the world today. Yes, the organization that skewered Galileo for saying the earth revolved around the sun is now more cutting edge than a significant percentage of Americans and American politicians.

In a statement that would be comical if it weren’t so predictable, the conservative Christian right suddenly decided that while the earth was created 6000 years ago based on an interpretation of the Bible, the head of the world’s biggest Christian sect was simply wrong about global warming being caused by humans. Because, in the apparently unironic words of Jeb Bush: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Unless it’s about women’s reproductive rights, of course. 

For the Catholic Church, this is a dramatic brand reinvention. In the spirit of the CEO as chief marketing officer, Pope Francis has begun to attack the baroque scope creep that characterizes most mature brands and embraced core values — in this case, mercy, charity, ethical living and a focus on serving the poor. He has taken one of the icons of his brand — his papal name — and chosen a saint renowned for his love of nature. Some consider St. Francis to be the first environmentalist.

For those who believed the Church had lost its way in the last 50 years, concerning itself with protecting wrongdoers in its ranks and meddling in the lives of people in ways that only compounded their unhappiness, this shift brings a shimmer of hope. And the numbers are already in: an overwhelming majority of Catholics, as well as many non-Catholics now believe the Church has an important role to play in the world. Proof that even in an organization as byzantine and ancient as the Catholic Church, much can be done by a determined change agent with a finger on the pulse of culture and an understanding of the brand’s essence. 

For the Republican party, this is at once a warning and an opportunity. Their refusal to respect the Pontiff’s words gives the lie to their protestations of respect for the religion, thereby weakening their hold on their base; while simultaneously making them appear like the world’s most backward troglodytes, unable to accept scientific consensus when even the poster-child for Luddite thinking has endorsed it. They would do well to take a leaf from that canny marketer, His Holiness Pope Francis, and return to their roots: the fiscal conservatism and espousal of independence and enterprise that once made the Republican party a thought-leader as well as a popular leader, and could do so again. 

For the environmental movement, it is a reminder that we need to seek help from every quarter, not just the “choir.” Nobody expected an endorsement from the Holy See, and yet, here it is. Like any good marketer, we should stop looking at our most obvious constituency and look for support from those who influence them and can actually change minds and behaviors. Yes, the encyclical is not perfect — it plays down the role of population increase in hurting the environment, and opposes a carbon tax — but in the main, it is a huge step forward for the movement. For hundreds of millions of families worldwide, the Pope’s words will make them think about the problem of climate change for the first time. Awareness of the problem is the first step to addressing it. 

If there is one thing that environmentalist marketers can do right now, it is to amplify the message from the Pope, through their own channels and through non-traditional channels ( for the activists — the channels are actually incredibly traditional). 

Yes, mom, maybe I will actually go to church this Sunday. Now that I’ve got something worth a prayer.

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