TOP Talk

His Holiness, The Ultimate Brand Leader

Posted September 25, 2015 By Sue Parente

Topics: Thought Leadership, Branding, Messaging and Positioning


If you are a CEO or perhaps a board of directors looking for a model to follow in terms of CEO brand leadership, we have a stellar example in our midst.

Whether you agree or disagree with his message or beliefs, and regardless of your view of the Catholic Church (which for many people ranges from complicated to down right horrible), it’s tough to argue that Pope Francis isn’t doing an effective job of repositioning and reinvigorating the Church’s brand. The massive crowds he draws wherever he goes is testament to this. So let’s look at how he’s doing that in ways that can translate to any company leader.

Knows his mission and lives it (it’s the second part that matters most).

Anyone listening to the Pope cannot fail to get the message that he’s about helping the poor and the most vulnerable in our world. The reason you can’t miss it is because he not only says it repeatedly, but you see pictures and video of him out among the poor and vulnerable on a consistent basis. He understands that images are what people remember, both consciously and subconsciously.

Even his choice of transportation while visiting the United States — a simple Fiat 500 — speaks volumes about his personal brand values.

pope_fiatFiat: CNNMoney

Brand leaders who put action against their words inspire and influence others to follow their lead.

Draws on his roots and keeps it real.

Part of why people seem so receptive to Pope Francis’ message — even those who were 100% unreceptive to any messages out of the Vatican two years ago — is that he comes from a part of the world that is far away from the ills associated with the Church. He can be free to express himself differently and with a warmth that comes from his roots as an Argentinian. Instead of changing to fit the Vatican mold, he’s succeeded in making the Vatican fit him. He’s a person who simply is who he is. This quality in a leader builds credibility, trust and a sense that the brand is made up of real people, not just glossy marketing campaigns.

Consider Mary Barra, CEO of GM, as another example of this, only not as a perceived outsider but as a “dyed in the wool” insider. Barra, a life-long GM employee and daughter of another GM employee, is using those roots to attack what she sees as systemic and cultural problems at GM, and she’s doing it with speed and decisiveness. She’s owning up to those problems and creating a new sense of brand responsibility and integrity that as Fortune magazine said, has everyone rooting for her to win.

Starts from a place of humanity.

The Pope takes a human-first approach to everything he says and does. He identifies the common fears we all share as people — hunger, isolation, rejection, homelessness, persecution — and uses those as a basis for building common ground and communicating his message. As a result, his messages are intensely relatable and approachable, even for those who disagree with him.

Think about how things played out for the privately-owned New England grocery store chain Market Basket when one family member attempted to take control, putting profits before people. There was a tremendous uprising from employees, customers and community members, which led to the reinstatement of the former CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas,“the people’s CEO.” He was committed to treating his employees and customers with humanity, recognizing their need for good wages and affordable food prices. His message was about giving his employees a better life and customers a better value, even if it dug into the company’s profits. Their business has been booming ever since.

Like it or not, Mr. or Ms. CEO, you are the brand steward for your company. What you say and do dictates how people feel about your business. You may not be in the business of saving souls, but you can affect great change for the better, and that’s the definition of a great brand leader.

Sue Parente

About Sue Parente

What inspires me? Brave communicators who dare to put "right" before "safe."