The Good 'Ole Pope, Über-Celebrity/Influencer (image via Shutterstock)
The Good ‘Ole Pope, Über-Celebrity/Influencer (image via Shutterstock)

The climate movement has gained what may be the ultimate celebrity spokesperson in Pope Francis. Marketers should take heed: the Pope has the ear of Millennials and other consumers who are willing to change their behavior and their purchasing to make a difference.
Media and social networks have been buzzing since the Pope released his Encyclical on June 18th. Pope Francis minces no words, calling on the world’s rich nations to pay their “grave social debt” to the poor and tackle climate change.
Most of us know by now that climate change is real and must be confronted. As marketers, we also tend to believe that celebrities have power to drive behavior change. Remember Leonardo DiCaprio exhorting us a few years back to go green from the front seat of his Prius? The car did climb to become the world’s third best-selling in 2012. But what role did celebrity endorsement really play?
A survey conducted by ICM during Climate Week in the UK found that it’s not celebrities but our partners, friends and parents who have the greatest influence over the green choices we make, whereas religious faith was reported as influencing choices only seven percent of the time.
But celebs no doubt do influence some of us and they have the greatest opportunity to do so when we share their values and when they touch us in a personal way. So can one of the world’s most powerful religious leaders prompt consumers to finally get serious about addressing global warming and environmental degradation? Pope Francis is a man admired and adored by billions and who touches the world’s Catholics in the most personal way, so the answer appears to be yes. In a set of studies conducted recently, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 24 percent of all American adults are Catholics and a significant majority of them (70 percent) think global warming is happening (versus 57 percent of non-Catholic Christians and 29 percent of Tea Party Republicans). Catholics are also more likely to think that global warming is mostly human-caused, and they are 18 percentage points more likely than non-Catholic Christians to be worried about it. Francis’ clearly stated positions on the issue do appear to be making a dent.
And the Pope isn’t just preaching to his own flock. Andrew Winston, eco-advisor and author of “The Big Pivot,” recently waded through and summarized the Pope’s 183-page tome and shared a word cloud of the top 50 words in the encyclical which reveals that “human,” rather than “God,” is the top word, and that “Jesus” doesn’t even make the top 50. (Winston also points out that the word “sustainability” is seldom used.) The Pope is clearly speaking to all of humanity when he reminds us of the principles behind “natural capitalism.” He writes that “only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations, can those actions be considered ethical.”
So Pope Francis is issuing a wakeup call. But why should marketers pay attention? Three good reasons come to mind:

  1. Pope Francis’s words ring truer and are likely to hit harder than those of many “green” celebrities. The Pope’s influential status is rooted in his authenticity. And Millennials, the least religious and most institutionally distrustful generation in American history, are listening. This group seems to truly care about solidarity with the poor and to understand that those on the margins are also those most likely to be impacted by global warming.
  2. These same Millennials are more willing than their parents’ generation to edit their purchasing choices and give preference to brands that share their beliefs. They are inspired by B Corps that proclaim more than just a moneymaking mission and other forms of commerce that give weight to both financial and social/environmental returns. In the words of Pope Francis: “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.”
  3. There continue to be massive opportunities to rally Millennials and others behind products and services that are healthier, tastier, safer, fair, natural, caring, transparent and more recyclable, renewable, reusable, and durable. People are clamoring for brands that actually get them excited about buying better stuff.

We as marketers have the tools and the creativity to meaningfully shift consumption behaviors towards more sustainable options. We should leverage the window that Pope Francis is re-opening to turn what is still a cultural whisper into a roar.
Leslie Pascaud is executive vice president of branding and sustainable innovation at Added Value, a marketing consultancy.