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Pope Francis Takes on the Bishop of Bling, Birth Control and Gay Marriage: Christopher Johnson, CEO of Brand Strategy Firm Whitehorn Group, Gives His Opinion on the Emerging Catholic Brand

NEW YORK, NY--(Marketwired - November 15, 2013) -  The following is a statement by Christopher Johnson, CEO of Whitehorn Group:

The Catholic Church scrutinized its financial records recently and what they found at the diocese of Limburg in Germany made their mouths drop. Apparently Bishop Frantz-Peter Tebartz-Van Elst was spending a fortune on renovations to his residence, including a $20,000 bathtub, $500,000 in built in closets and a $35,000 conference table. As if this was not wasteful enough, the 'Man of God' had landscaping done for $1.1 million; walls built for several million more and installed a fitness room bigger than most apartments in New York.

In a surprising move, the typically insular Catholic Church made this disclosure themselves before any media house got its hands on the information. However, since this work began under the previous Pope, we must ask, was this business as usual -- or was 'Bishop Bling' -- a nickname given to him by the media when these disclosures were made -- just unfortunate to complete under a new and publicly austere Pope's new tenure?

Regardless, Christopher Johnson comments, "Increasingly, it appears there is a real change beginning within the Catholic Church that feels more and more like brand repositioning -- and from the top down. It has the potential to be very exciting." Pope Francis came into the Vatican with a promise to uphold humility among the clergy. Fine, and a worthwhile position given that the vast majority of those the Church serves are below the poverty line worldwide. Obviously, a rouge Bishop was the last thing he needed tainting his first months as the leader of the largest religious organization in the world. So we are not surprised that the Pope himself suspended this 'Bishop of Bling' very publicly. Not a usual action within the famously self-protective ranks of high-ranking clergy, in any religion, not just Catholicism. Following such a high profile suspension will certainly be an equally high profile repurposing of the residence to mirror Pope Francis' repositioning of the Institution of the Catholic Church itself. There are even rumors that the Bishop's sprawling residence will be turned into either a soup kitchen or a refugee center.

Johnson explains, "The above incidence is just one among many that threaten the Catholic Church's brand. Some may find it unusual to view a religious institution as a brand. But just like nations and cities are brands, or cultural institutions are brands, religious organizations are also brands." In fact, the Catholic Church is by far the richest institution on the planet. While we as humans are remarkably similar in our in core wants, needs and desires, the world's major religions have obvious differences in beliefs, world views, traditions and forms of worship.

If we were to view the Catholic Church as a business, say one with the purpose of saving souls, or inspiring good acts among its followers -- we could examine the operational basics. For example, it has a workforce of more than 1 million, billions of customers, priceless assets, and more cash and real estate than Donald Trump can dream of. From this point of view, Catholicism in particular is a service industry, giving comfort in distressful times, teaching godly values, offering the peace and therapy of confession while delivering the promise of heaven. Johnson clarifies, "For this reason the Catholic Church can be considered a brand -- just like Starbucks, or any franchise with a global headquarters and thousands of locations serving similar and prescribed goods and services." Thus, following this line of thought, this institution's brand stability remains attached to service quality and consistency in the messages and delivery.

The Catholic Church appears to understand that their brand requires some adjustment and many would agree, because according to many studies, this institution is going backwards. To begin with, the Catholic Church attendance has declined over the years as many faithful are moving to Churches that have what can be considered stronger, more relevant platforms for worship. Johnson says, "There are many Church brands which feel more approachable, fresher and easier to reconcile with our modern reality. IT may be ultimately the same core message but people respond to what they like and feel they can trust, just like any consumer brand."

In addition, the overall perception of the Catholic Church appears to be losing its polish worldwide. For instance a number of people think the Church is outdated, sexist, preachy, unapologetic and too rich for comfort. When you add the child abuse accusations that led to Pope Benedict's resignation, you have a brand that is in total disrepair. In addition, the Church is disconnected from people on the ground and almost seems to live in another dimension. Could it get any worse?

Maybe it can, but not yet. There could be hope for the many Catholic congregants who have had to painfully watch as the Church slowly decline. Johnson comments, "Pope Francis appears to want to remedy the current situation by choosing to identify the Church with humility and service for the destitute. Smart move, since this is his primary and core target audience. He obviously recognizes that the Catholic Church is a brand under increasing stress and is taking action to remedy the situation."

In addition, Pope Francis seems more open to those who are traditionally ostracized by the Church and has publicly embraced the subjects of gay rights and abortion. In fact, he recently said that the Catholic Church should stop banging on about abortion, gay rights and contraception and focus on other issues that should concern Christians. Just this week, it was announced that Catholics around the world have been asked to take a survey on the Church's position on social issues, such as gay marriage and birth control. No one knows if the Pope will change doctrine or his opinion, the survey is another move to reform how it participates with the faithful in addressing their lives. Johnson says, "It is clear from his recent actions, similar to any corporate CEO who sees opportunity to save their business through modernization; the Pope is trying to make the Church's brand relevant to people today."

The Pope has started doing this through example by carrying his own bag and cooking his own meals. He is siding more with austerity and moving away from a lavish lifestyle. Through his own actions as the leader of the Church, he is truly choosing to lead -- and leadership through example is exceptionally powerful. Pope Francis is beginning to express a Catholic brand that identifies more with the common people and their needs. He appears to conscious that he leads an institution that must appeal to new trends and at the same time stay true to its traditional base. After all, this traditional base is what made the Church a big institution and that is why he appears to want to remain connected.

Johnson states, "The first step for any outdated brand to overhaul its image is to identify the very need to rebrand. This is why the Pope's self-directed public actions are a positive thing." From his bold actions to date, Pope Francis may just be capable of both reorganizing and laying the foundation for the rebranding of the Catholic Church as one of the torchbearers for modern humanity, instead of the conservative religious brand that has been increasingly abandoned by many faithful worldwide.

About Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is CEO of branding firm Whitehorn Group. Mr. Johnson is a highly regarded authority on creating innovative brands that change markets like JetBlue Airways and INFINITI Motor Company. He attended Carnegie Mellon University where he won the Tholenheimer Award and McCurdy Prize.

About Whitehorn Group

Whitehorn is a premier brand strategy firm. They create what's NEW and NEXT through multinational branding, celebrity branding, business strategy, global marketing, design, product innovation, and distribution.

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Christopher Johnson
(212) 537-9129 

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