Bergoglio and Branding

Patrick Ruffini on what the Republican party can learn from Pope Francis:

Months ago, Catholics and other observers wondered changes would be in store with the election of Cardinal Bergoglio. Most honed in on how he might differ from Benedict XVI on doctrinal grounds, or in reining in the Roman Curia. These are the kinds of substantive matters that Very Serious People, and those who pretend to be like them in the media, are supposed to care about. And they are quite important in the long-term unfolding of history. 

But ask the average man on the street what has changed about the Church with the new Pope, and most will not be able to name a single policy change that Francis has instituted. Rather, they will cite his common touch, and his genuine acts of humility, as evidence that the Catholic Church has reinvigorated itself. 

In fact, it is probably right to say that people see Francis as more of a radical reformer than he actually is because of these deeply personal touches. In a way, it doesn’t matter as much what Francis does policy-wise, because his personal example is inspiration enough. 

This is not only the story of one Pope, but the it is the story of all transformational figures who were able to rally people of different backgrounds and beliefs. At the center of the story of Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill, FDR, and some might even say the 2008 Obama was a magnetic persona that fit into a carefully crafted narrative. Having a leader who is much different than what we have come to expect turns out to count for a whole lot, much more than the substantive nitty-gritty of policy. 

This admittedly superficial view of what drives political change does have an upshot for wonks. If policy doesn’t matter as much to winning elections, the wonks have more running room to implement short-term unpopular policies or to resist whole cloth changes demanded in the name of “rebranding” if they can find a popular leader who can bring the public along. 

Call this the 70-20-10 rule. 70 percent of what it will take to pull off a successful rebrand will flow directly from the personality of the leader. 20 percent will come from the specific policies they put in place — very important, but also very boring, and thus downplayed by the media. And 10 percent will come from tactical changes. Yet, policy, message, and tactics do matter when two parties are otherwise stalemated because of a lack of inspirational leadership on either side (which is often the case).

There can be little question but that Republicans need rebranding. Pope Francis is succeeding at rebranding the Catholic church and making it more welcoming to the masses, despite the fact that very little has changed in terms of church policy. The GOP should be looking to emulate his success.