Clearly, there is some opportunism going on here, valid and less valid (I’ll avoid a judgment of invalidity in the spirit of this Pope). That happens with celebrity. Pope Francis is very, very famous—not just for papal spectacle—all popes are famous for that. He’s captured the imagination of millions beyond the church with his humor and relatable insight. Time Magazine characterized his appeal in much that way when they named Pope Francis person of the year.
But setting aside his brand of likeable celebrity, there’s another halo effect happening here. This pope has come to stand for specific ideas that are in search of authority and advocacy. He certainly stands for peace, joy and love, as you might expect of a good Christian leader. The force of his brand however, stems from his willingness to express how to think about some of the most polarizing issues that divide us, like the yawning gap between rich and poor, like our pathetic stewardship of our planet, like sexual identity and birth control. In this regard, Pope Francis is thoughtful, substantial and articulate, even as he brings a signature lightness of spirit to dark and disagreeable complexities. More often than not, his words are astonishingly absent of judgment, which is perhaps his greatest break with centuries of church tradition.
I’ve come to see his brand as optimism—hope not only in an omnipotent God but hope in humanity—a notion for which there is considerable appetite today. The world is starved for great leaders, particularly in a time of conflict and overwhelming suffering. Timothy Egan, in an opinion piece in the New York Times not long ago, described this pope as the most humane figure on the global stage. In times like ours, who wouldn’t want to be connected to that?
Pope Francis is a market maker and a great brand. There is little doubt that great brands inspire entrepreneurship, both of raw opportunity and new ideas. Apple may be nearly a truism at this point but the analogy still serves. With every new product launch, hosts of imitators and accessory makers follow, even as Apple—more importantly—reshapes our relationship with technology. Likewise, Pope Francis stimulates a bustling business of kitsch and hoped for alliances, but he also contours our relationship with important concepts that could reshape our relationships with each other and the planet we call home.