In midtown Manhattan, there are all kinds of famous faces staring out over the skyline— models hawking handbags, actors selling watches, personalities promoting shows.
But now there’s a new, decidedly less commercial visage among them: the smiling face of the pope.
Painters are wrapping up a wall-size portrait on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to New York as part of his tour of several East Coast cities. It’s a welcoming gift of sorts for the pontiff, who has become so popular that his visit is expected to overwhelm host cities for days.
All this attention points to one aspect that Francis seems to have mastered in his two-year tenure: the art of authenticity. Through his populist message, his charity towards the poor and those of different faiths, and his ability to echo public sentiment on issues like gay marriage, Francis has reinvigorated the church’s image worldwide.
There’s no denying that the church has struggled with its public image in recent years. From scandals and corruption to a sometimes conflicted relationship with social change, many Catholics— particularly more liberal followers in the West— felt that their church was slowly losing relevance. As Romy Ribitzky argued, the sudden resignation of Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict forced the church to become “Catholic 2.0.”
So why is Pope Francis suddenly connecting with a sometimes-skeptical public? For one, he represents something new, the first Latin American and Jesuit pope, trained in a theology that praised direct contact with the poor and downtrodden.
But there’s something else at work here, too— something that any big organization could take a lesson from. In his outreach, Francis often calls upon central Catholic teachings, like charity towards the poor and campaigns against inequality, while moving away from “culture war” issues like abortion or gay marriage. In the business world, these might be called “core principles” or “brand values.”
Throughout his public appearances, he’s applied these values in ways that tackle very real present-day issues: challenging the world to slow climate change or take in refugees fleeing violence in Syria and elsewhere. In doing so, he’s attracted new Millennial fans who are looking for change in staid institutions.
This strategy works for companies looking to establish strong brand identities, too. Some of the more notable examples of firms with solid principles include Southwest Airlines’ “Southwest Way” and Ritz-Carlton’s “Mystique.” And while we would never place business values at the level of religious belief, they are animated by the same idea: when in doubt, look towards these core concepts for guidance. Apply these values consistently and customers begin to associate your company and your brand with their positive outcomes.
So as Pope Francis sweeps across America this month, take a moment to watch how he is slowly changing the Catholic Church by emphasizing central church teachings. You might be able to apply some of those lessons in your own life and your own brand.