(Note: I’m taking a short break from my usual wizbang tech blogging to ruminate on my day job. Please indulge my digression.)
Which is the better strategy: concentrating on one specific species, like polar bears, or working on a global conservation effort that aims to protect large swaths of the world’s major habitats?
I’ll let the science and policy contributors on this blog debate the conservation implications of that question. But as someone who works every day to tell The Nature Conservancy’s story, I know what works from a marketing and communications perspective — and it’s not the global conservation work.
In my business, nothing can tell the story of environmental degradation better than charismatic megafauna. A couple years ago, Knut the polar bear (see above) raised more awareness of how climate change is effecting the Arctic in one week — and sold more magazines — than any web feature on our work in Alaska ever will.
But why is that? And is it all that effective?
When thinking about the environment, people connect more readily with animals (and yes, the cuter the better) than they ever will with complex ideas, scientific studies and global conservation efforts.
This is why the WWF panda produces better brand recognition than the Conservancy’s oak leaf globe.
Certainly, the Conservancy’s marketing and communications staff understands our audience connects with animals, one look at our species-laden home page will tell you that. It’s why we use dogs to tell the story of our invasive species work and look at the global effects of climate change through the lens of a half a dozen species from around the world.
There’s a design principle that a product is finished when nothing more can be added and nothing else can be taken away. This is why marketing through charismatic species is so successful — it boils down a complex issue like climate change into one simple and hopefully adorable message: “Reduce your emissions or the polar bear gets it.”
This type of marketing strategy works to open people’s wallets, but is it effective in the long-run? I have my doubts. Because once you get past the polar bear, what’s left to hang your hat on? No one wants to see the polar bear go extinct, but if and when it does how will it affect my family in Virginia?
A complex issue like climate change cannot and should not be distilled into the image of a cute polar bear. We have to communicate all sides of the equation — from reducing emissions to planning to adapt to the changes that will come no matter what we do. It also means talking about international policy and explaining complex issues like reducing emissions from deforestation.
In other words, it means having a real, long-term conversation with your audience rather than a fleeting crush with a charismatic species.