Climate Change has a New Celebrity Spokesperson: The Pope

16 Jul 2015|Leslie Pascaud

The climate movement has gained an influential celebrity spokesperson in Pope Francis and marketers should take heed: the Pope has the ear of Millennials and other consumers who are willing to edit their purchasing choices to make a positive difference.

Media and social networks have been buzzing since the Pope released his Encyclical on June 18th . In it, 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 needs to 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 the world’s third best-selling line 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, (58%, 41% and 36% of respondents respectively) , whereas religious faith was reported as influencing choices only 7% 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 get finally serious about addressing global warming and environmental degradation ? In the case of Pope Francis : a man admired and adored by billions and someone who touches many of the world’s Catholics in the most personal way, the answer appears to be yes. In a study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 24% of all American adults are Catholics and a solid majority of them (70%) think global warming is happening (vs 57% of non-Catholic Christians and 29% of Tea Party Republicans). Catholics are also more likely to think that global warming is mostly human caused, and they are 18 % points more likely than other non-Catholic Christians to be worried about it. Of course, people had a point of view prior to the new Pope’s election on March 13, 2013. But 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 “Jesus” doesn’t even make the top 50. (Winston also points out that the word sustainability is used parsimoniously.) 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 of his green celebrity predecessors. The Pope’s celebrity status is rooted in his authenticity. And Millennials, the least religious and most institutionally distrustful generation in American history, are listening. This group truly cares about solidarity with the poor and knows 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 privilege brands that share their beliefs. They are inspired by B Corps and other forms of commerce that give equal weight to financial and social/environmental returns, because 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 more healthy, tasty, safe, fair, natural, caring, transparent, more recyclable, renewable, reusable and durable. People are eager to connect with brands that can actually get them excited about buying better stuff.

We as marketers have the tools, the creativity and the “chops” 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 of change into a roar.

Written by Leslie Pascaud, EVP Branding and Sustainable Innovation.

Follow Leslie on Twitter @LesliePascaud

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