What to Do When the Pope Plugs Your Brand? Stay the Course


150922171039-pope-fiat-500l-780x439Pope Francis doesn't need words to communicate messages that ricochet around the world. He's proven himself to be more than capable of communicating clear, strong messages with his actions alone. When he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, this intentional man of the people could be spotted taking the bus in Rome and Buenos Aires. And as The New Yorker's John Cassidy reported, Pope Francis sent a similar message when he climbed out of his "little black" Fiat 500L to greet President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama yesterday at the White House.

The Fiat, surrounded by gas-guzzling SUVs at the White House, said more about the Pope's commitment to battling climate change than any speech could. This week's news about Volkswagen using technology to cheat on emissions tests only amplifies the Pope's choice of automobile. So while this has been a bad week for VW, it's been an excellent one so far for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which also manufactures the modified Jeep Wrangler being used as a Popemobile for Pope Francis' visits to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Pope rides in a used Ford Focus in Rome and "demands only modest cars during his international travel."

This amounts to unexpected, fortuitous product placement for Fiat Chrysler—heaven sent, you might say. Looking at the way it is responding to this lucky break, here's how you can make the most of a similar opportunity, should the Pope (or a figure of lesser renown but equally high star wattage) make a public display of using your product or service, with no expectation of compensation.

1. Keep your website focused on your products and let the media sell the connection for you. The media's coverage of the Pope's choice of automobiles this week rivals that of its coverage of Donald Trump's presidential bid. Journalists are apt to go to a brand's site to see if it's shamelessly exploiting a case of lucky product placement. The Fiat and Jeep sites are free of potentially embarrassing Pope tie-ins.

2. Stick to the Twitter posts that have always shown your best side—with slight adjustments. After first trying on Twitter to capitalize on the Pope's use of its automobiles and then deleting the tweets, the @FiatUSA and the @Jeep Twitter accounts now make no mention of the Pope. Any obvious tie-in would get quick slap-downs from tweeters with sweaty palms just itching to pummel a brand that tries to brag about its good fortune. It would be the equivalent of a slow home run trot in baseball. Since the Pope arrived in the U.S., Fiat has shown more full-on shots of the Fiat 500 on Twitter, and fewer closeups of dashboards and interiors. It's a smart move, as those unfamiliar with the car and looking at it on Twitter during the Pope's visit can get full glimpses of it against scenic backgrounds.

3. Let your Facebook followers tout the lucky connection for you, and stay out of it. Fiat makes no mention of the Pope on its Facebook page, but its follower do. One posted a picture of the Pope smiling in his Fiat, accompanied with this comment: "The Pope loves his Fiat 500L." No reply from Fiat. Another wrote: "How about making a 500L Pope Edition! Crosses embroidered on the seat backs and a Rosary hanging from the mirror. I would buy one!"

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI