TO WIN, CONSERVATIONISTS MUST CHANGE THEIR MESSAGE
By Kim Vacariu
Conservationists cannot win based on the merits of their ideas alone. Nor can they win based on the current way in which those ideas are delivered to what is now the most important audience segment for protecting Nature: the “non-conservation voting public,” those current and prospective voters who do not already choose Nature protection as a driver of their voting habits.
For conservationists to win the critical battles ahead, existing communications strategies will need to be substantially altered and expanded, and the movement’s internal culture modified. Unless a means is found to deliver truly new impressions that subtly justify pro-Nature voting actions to the non-conservation voting public — in a way that doesn’t require them to abandon their belief systems — current laws will be endangered and achieving new long-term Nature-protection unlikely.
Recent political results prove that Nature-protection concerns are a barely visible priority for today’s average non-conservation voters, a group wielding large influence in swinging election results, regardless of political party. As a result, conservationists stand in a familiar posture—backs against the wall—searching once again for a game-changing adjustment to strategies that might somehow provide enduring victories at the ballot box.
Recognizing the “Human Condition”
However, before embarking once again on the standard, recurring search for what to say/how to say it, Nature protection advocates must come to grips with something they have never before fully understood, or at least not effectively used, as a primary pretext for public messaging — recognition of the “human condition”: the volatile situations of life that blend together to dictate how people feel and act. The serious threats faced by Nature today can be partly blamed on this reluctance to carefully adapt conservation messages to the stark realities of people’s everyday lives. It follows that this reluctance is also a likely contributing cause for non-conservation voters casually electing candidates who at best ignore and at worst openly deride Nature protection.
The challenge for conservation messaging is that the volatile situations people face daily often seem to have nothing to do with Nature protection (even when they do!). Explaining how seemingly unrelated human conditions like health and happiness connect to the well-being of the natural world is a traditional enigma that has plagued the conservation community’s communications efforts from the start.
It’s easy to say that animals will die if you take away their homes. But the current regretful state of the “human condition” prevents the voting population from logically equating the protection of wild animals and their habitats with at-home family benefits. If voters equated the benefits of conservation with betterment of their own lives, politicians with overt goals of de-activating the agencies responsible for wildlife and habitat protection would not be elected. In the same way, the human condition does not yet allow for the masses to automatically relate the need to halt climate change with short-term family happiness or success — if it did, politicians with overt goals of dismantling the agencies in charge of addressing the climate crisis would not be elected.
In order to succeed, conservationists will need to swallow some pride and admit that their ongoing efforts at corralling significant political power through existing communication/action campaigns have failed. The moment has arrived for the movement to unzip the flaps of its familiar, cozy tent and crawl outside to find the means to cast a deeply meaningful spell upon the hearts and minds of voters who have been unreachable in the past. How to do that is, of course, the Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question. But there is an answer if practitioners are willing to hear it.
Today’s conservation messengers will no doubt question the validity of the above assumptions, and will point out that every conceivable messaging concept has been previously debated and sampled in thousands of hours of internal messaging development calls, discussed in hundreds of internal focus groups, and belabored in countless papers and books written by in-house communicators. Yet, in truth, real human-condition-based messaging has only been dabbled with along its edges. And by continually restricting message creation to only members of conservation organizations and their friends, the opportunity for finding “home run” message content is being squandered.
Meanwhile, a well-funded, professional army of Nature detractors long ago successfully embraced and mastered potent anti-conservation messaging strategies, designed not by themselves on internal conference calls, but by award-winning independent advertising gurus using human condition-based data to craft their appeals. They are the same gurus who bring us wildly successful commercial campaigns using human condition data to promote Subarus, Dove Soap, Nike Shoes, etc.
Masked Conservation Awareness
Conservationists need to mimic how communication successes happen in the real marketing world. To get there will require major funding and an odd-feeling toning down of endangered species-protecting, habitat-connecting, planet-saving organizational messaging to the masses. Instead, the creation of stealthy new public conservation visions (in which the conservation vision is kept invisible) is in order. Specifically designed for contented, unquestioned absorption by the rough and tumble menagerie of non-conservation voters living in the real world, these visions are yet to be described. They will, however, mean good-bye to science-laden eco-dispatches and hello to memorable “jingles” or other jargon that, though foreign and probably gut-wrenching to the movement’s current communicators, could well represent the last best chance for “masked conservation awareness” to be implanted into the minds of even dedicated Fox News and Rush Limbaugh patrons.
In all fairness to reality, conservationists generally do not have the on-board communications staff or financial capacity – even if they have the will — to digest, fundraise for, and implement the drastic outreach changes that must be enacted in order to win majority votes for conservation. Unfortunately, even if made, such changes will likely require years to take effect. Then there’s the other reality: we don’t have years to fix this problem.
A Communications Emergency
Conservationists’ standard solicitation of messaging help, often provided pro bono from within supportive conservation circles, is not the answer. The static lack of large-scale funding for development of unique conservation communications campaigns is clear evidence that a major problem exists. Who wants to fund something that has failed time and again? As a result, enlisting that same messaging help from never before considered marketing/public relations/advertising resources in the non-conservation business world now rears its head as a last gasp conservation communications effort. The current political atmosphere, saturated with cleverly disguised and very effective anti-conservation propaganda created by those same unfamiliar yet highly-skilled entities, demands it.
If public conservation consciousness is ever to be woven into permanent political power, the conservation movement’s number one communications challenge — and possibly the only one remaining, is to understand the prevailing human condition. Increasing numbers of memberships and protesters is, of course, critical for NGO organizational and spiritual survival, but the current rate of increase in those numbers is far too small to change the “nature-less” momentum of larger society. Something new and completely different has to be added to the conservation communications playbook.
Finding the Will — and the Funding
Ironically, top-level national marketing experts, who may personally care little about conservation but whose jobs revolve around creating “out-of-the-box” solutions to marketing challenges of all kinds, could become the champions of masked conservation awareness. A recent, endlessly-recurring national TV ad campaign to convince people to accept an expansion of oil drilling (American Petroleum Institute), which subliminally connects everything people love and need in this world to oil (with no mention of oil drilling itself), is a prime example of what a similar endlessly-recurring Madison Avenue-style campaign linking personal health and happiness to Nature protection could look like — without using a single sentence about saving wildlife, habitat, future generations, or the planet.
A willingness to completely revamp messaging, and to convince cautious funders and donors to help pay for it, are only two of the multiple changes that must be embraced by conservationists and environmentalists in order to win, but they should top the to-do list.
Agreed, turning over the future of conservation awareness campaigns to profit-driven advertising executives, in a last-ditch effort to abate today’s anti-Nature maelstrom, may seem like a Hail Mary moment. But in the end, the benefits of a messaging paradigm shift designed to influence non-conservation voters, no matter how nerve-racking or expensive for conservationists, would be well worth the effort. It may be now or never.
# Kim Vacariu has been a conservation communications practitioner for the past 30 years. He published and edited the Steamboat Springs Review, a conservation-focused newspaper (1984-1997), and served as conservation communication specialist and Wildway Network organizer for Wildlands Network (1998-2017). Kim received a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from Kent State University.
Kim will be submitting further views addressing this urgent subject, which Rewilding Earth will share. Contact Kim via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . The editors also invite other perspectives for Rewilding Earth on how to more effectively communicate our pro-Nature messages.
BRANDING FOR BIODIVERSITY, a Sherry Nemmers Interview, March, 2018
Editor’s note: I had the pleasure of working briefly with Sherry Nemmers for the Adirondack Council, when I was conservation director there and Sherry joined the board of directors. Our shared time there was much shorter than I would have preferred, for I’d committed to a year-long exploration of the proposed Eastern Wildway, which necessitated leaving the staff of Adirondack Council. During our brief overlap, however, I was quickly impressed by both Sherry’s fearless compassion for wild creatures – especially carnivores – and her grasp of how to communicate our conservation goals to folks not already in our camp.
I still have the good fortune of seeing Sherry occasionally at conservation gatherings in Adirondack Park; and always we agree: we must redouble our efforts to restore Pumas to the East. When Rewilding colleagues and I decided to launch Rewilding Earth, I quickly turned to Sherry and asked her to help us reach more people. This work and conversation have just begun; and Sherry will have much more to say to us as we advance rewilding visions; but here’s a preliminary and informal chat with Sherry about “branding” wild ideas.
John Davis Sherry, please tell us a little of your background in marketing and in conservation.
Sherry Nemmers My work is to discover insights and perceptions and then to create the right look, tone, and feel for a brand. As Executive Creative Director, EVP, for New York City based global ad agencies, including Saatchi and Publicis, and as a private consultant, I’ve been privileged to create world-class branding for world-class corporations. I have a great passion for wild places and creatures, though, especially in our Adirondack Park. My work keeps me in New York City or traveling much of the time, but I go north to my place in the central Adirondacks every chance I get.
Your readers may know of my work primarily through a few widely successful branding campaigns I created. During a time when crime was rampant in major cities and political leaders realized they had to do something about it, I conceived of McGruff the Crime Dog. McGruff ads ran nationally for many years and did indeed “Take a Bite out of Crime”. By the end of this campaign, cities were safer and McGruff was the second most widely recognized iconic animal after Smokey the Bear. By contrast, a fun campaign I created was “Yo Spike, I got the Motts!”
Later, I created the Charmin Bears for Charmin (interesting how popular bears are in our imagination, no?!), which also fueled my competitive Superbowl spot. The continuing success of this iconic campaign led the CEO of Procter and Gamble to create the coveted I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Award in my honor, and tag me “Brand Magician”. I still advise major corporate clients; but more and more, I’m pondering how the skills we use in marketing might be used to draw more people to the cause of protecting and restoring wildlife species.
The overlaps between corporate and conservation messaging are many, and they involve insights of people’s perceptions and values and of how to “brand” products or ideas. A brand has to find its one true thing, followed and supported by the look, tone, and feel.
JD What, then, can marketing teach conservation? What can we learn from ad campaigns to help us be more effective in wildlife conservation?
SN To change how a consumer perceives a brand, we must change how the brand perceives its consumer. We want to talk to the undecided or the misinformed, but not to those constitutionally opposed. Reach out to those not yet informed, or decided. Enlist the help of your advocates. Help your advocates help you. Tell them how to help.
I learned a lot from being asked to rebrand a commodity, where the challenge is to sell a whole category, like butter or kale – or perhaps carnivore conservation — not a specific company. To create impact, I needed to rebrand a whole failing category. Plants were closing and workers being laid off. Research showed that current advertisements appealed to remaining consumers, but were not drawing more people in. We may face a situation like that in conservation, where we are good at communicating with our own, but not at reaching out to the still undecided. We needed this commodity’s purveyors to think about consumers in a new way; and maybe that is needed in conservation now.
A caution to keep in mind when thinking about messages is that consumers may not tell the truth when amid a small group of their peers. We need to go deep, to talk individually with some of the folks we’re trying to reach, to find what sorts of messages appeal to them. An example of outmoded advertising may be the sorrowful photos and captions of needy dogs or cats in cages. How do those motivate people, beyond just making them sad? Consumers, of products and information and causes, want to see results; they want to be engaged.
JD So, can we continue to recognize and honor the intrinsic value and natural beauty of wild places and creatures in our communications with the public, or must we focus more on the human or utilitarian benefits of land and wildlife conservation?
SN We need to do both. We may have one style and tone for our close allies, and another for the large group of undecided folks we need to bring to our side. For the broader outreach, we need to keep in mind that our target changes rapidly, as does their attention span. What worked ten years ago or two years ago, may not now. Watch for opportunities in the mainstream news, as with the murder of Cecil the Lion by the Minnesota dentist a couple years ago, and the international outrage that caused. Another opportunity arose a year or so ago when no less conservative a periodical than the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the World Wildlife Fund study showing drastic declines in wildlife abundance world-wide in recent decades.
For the undecided, if not for our own, we need to show how such wildlife loss affects people – not just far away wildlife, but animals and plants in our area. Bring it home. The intrinsic value messages speak well to our current allies, and that’s important. The public benefits arguments help bring in others. Make it relevant to that untapped market. Our market is people who want to know but don’t know. Think of NPR listeners – millions of good folks who care about the state of the world but may know very little about ecology or natural history or may not even be aware that humankind has precipitated an extinction crisis.
JD You and I have talked in the past about launching a MISSING CATS campaign, perhaps involving bulletins like we commonly see for people’s lost pets, but instead calling attention to the native cats we’ve lost, particularly Pumas in the East. Perhaps the other side of the bulletin would be on MISSING DOGS, for Wolves! How might we get that going?
SN Bring in the kids, and the parents will follow. This is always true! We can write something like that quickly, find some gripping photos, and run them in Rewilding Earth as a PDF that folks can print and post. Of course, we need to be smart about it. Let’s figure out the right areas to post such bulletins. We could think of these as “wild” posts, and urge readers to print the fliers and post them on bulletin boards in town centers, cafes, bars, post offices; go where the people are. It’s a 360 degree way of coming to the people. Best is if we get kids to understand them and post them.
JD A week ago, our neighbor told my wife and me about finding four dead Coyotes shot and dumped on a rural road just outside the small town on the eastern edge of Adirondack Park where we live. Is there a way of turning a tragedy like this into a teaching opportunity?
SN Yes, and we must, but think first about what we want our neighbors to do. Can you somehow share the tragedy with students, and get them talking and thinking about it? Kids will lead; parents will follow. Yet another massacre in Florida motivated the most inspiring activism from young adults. Their crystal clear thinking and unfiltered outrage is being heard, everywhere. They can make a difference. So can we. We have to. We’re out of time.
JD Finally for now, Sherry, and much more conversation later: are we using facts too much and stories too little?
SN Again we need both. Engage them with stories. Inform them with facts. Enlist them with action. Empower them. They want to help. Let’s help them help us. Rewild.