Save Knut or Save the World?


(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) thanĀ  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.

(Image: Esther Corely, form The Nature Conservancy Flickr Group.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. When we were writing the speech of the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the COP 13 in Bali (2007), we came up with a good way to answer the polar bear dilemma (what’s left to do once the bear actually goes extinct). There might not be that much we can to save polar bears from losing their arctic sea ice habitats. But we can in the end have an impact on climate change. And one way to do that is to reduce deforestation (which is not sexy either). But saving the orangutan requires saving the rainforest. So the president ended his speech saying, “If I may draw an analogy, the polar bear represents the problem of melting ice-caps, where there is little we can directly do to help. The Orangutan represents a solution, an interlinked process in which we stop deforestation, save endangered forest wildlife, store greenhouse gas emissions. If we do all this right, we will ultimately save polar bears and the entire earth.”
    I guess that is one way to package a complex issue in a way that makes it still palatable and interesting to a broad audience.

  2. Erik,
    I like the Orangutan analogy a lot. It does neatly sum up the complexity of the climate issue in Indonesia. Then the connection has to come back to me in my cube in Virginia.

    So, if all the forests are cut down there’s no Orangutans? I can see them in the zoo, and I’m probably never going to Indonesia anyway. The connection, of course, is climate. If climate change occurs the system breaks down, and we have global/economic upheaval.

    The problem there is that it’s a distant future — which Americans generally tend to ignore. It’s a tough nut to crack.

  3. Everyone ignores the distant future. I guess humans evolved with a maximum time horizon of a few hours. This changed into a few weeks among hunter gathering societies and then months when agriculture came up. Once economic planning came onto the scene, people slowly started to think in terms of years ahead, to the point that we may now think about our pensions only a few years into our working lives. But we are clearly not ready yet to really feel the consequences of what we do today to our own future in a few decades from now, let alone the futures of those who come after us.
    This may be one of the main obstacles to environmental conservation. We are dealing with time scales that are largely beyond our comprehension. Stuff that evolved millions of years ago. Thinks that may die out millenia from now.
    But indeed climate may be the one thing that is staring us right in the face. We can feel it happening. And who knows, the complete global economic pessimism may to some extent be caused by a realization about what we are doing to our own planet. And maybe it is the wake up call that will get us to jump to the next time horizon.

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