The environmental movement is good at bugging governments until they ban things like uranium mining or cosmetic pesticides. But it has sometimes failed at the more difficult task of bringing mainstream hearts and minds around to its way of thinking. What's the point of laws most people don't yet believe in?
In the fight for those hearts and minds, the eco-freaks are up against capitalism's finest and most financed, the captains of industrial marketing, the manufacturers of cool. Environmentalists have countered with big ideas and righteous souls---and are decidedly uncool.
Some companies even hide any greenness they happen to posses. "Coca-Cola has invested heavily in various recycling programs and recyclable package designs," says Lei Huang. He's a branding expert in Dalhousie's biz school. "The activities are not publicized because there is some fear that it would reduce the product's appeal to some of the company's audience."
This movement needs an extreme image makeover. Marketing gurus tell me that all those depressing facts environmentalists throw into the ether might make us think, but they'll never get us to act. "Ideas like landfill depletion, carbon emissions and the consumerist culture are too psychologically far away," says Huang, "too disconnected from the everyday goings-on of normal people. People can't relate to them in the way they can relate to the benefits they see when they make a change."
He calls these ideas "features," descriptions of a problem. He says environmentalists should shift their focus away from features and onto benefits. People need to know the benefits of anything you want to sell them, including ideas. It's the "what's in it for me?" factor.
"When someone wants to know why we ride our bike around town instead of driving," Huang says, "we retort with, 'Because it emits less carbon dioxide into our suffocating atmosphere.' Technically, it's true, but the problem is that all these other people don't care about features. They care about benefits. So, when your colleague wants to know why you ride a bike instead of take a car to the office, tell her it's fun and the exercise you get saves you money on a gym membership."
Jess Ambramson puts it another way. She's an account exec at theadlibgroup, a full-service marketing agency in Toronto. "You need a feel good story," she says. "People are resistant to change; they want minimal hassle and to maximize the pleasure in life. So the question is how do you make people feel good about change?"
The trick is to replace the doom and gloom of environmentalism with positive, upbeat, motivating messages that request a specific action. "Sometimes giving a million options is not good," Abramson says. "Think of the three things that would make the biggest positive impact." Then tell the story that shows people how good those actions feel.
Abramson, who spent two years of her life developing climate change programs in the non-profit environmental sector, adds that environmentalists---like most professionals---tend to be insular. They talk to their own. She says that new social media present an enormous opportunity to reach beyond the usual suspects in a more interactive format.
She says that PETA is one non-profit that takes advantage of multimedia vehicles. Their McCruelty campaign uses a visually jarring animated website, interactive video games and a comedic viral video starring Martin Short and Andy Dick, playing a burnt-out, sadist Ronald McDonald, to call on viewers to demand more humane slaughter methods for McDonald's chickens. The website links to PETA's blog, Facebook and Twitter pages, and allows users to sign up for the group's listserv.
"It all ties in to the brand's effectiveness," says Abramson. "They're doing a really good job being in all those places, as well as using more traditional media like their magazine and newsletter, and they're making really big changes."
PETA remains controversial, in-your-face, and just plain offensive to some, but it is never ho-hum.
Compare that to Greenpeace's Save the Boreal Forest site, which is cluttered and text heavy. It has videos though, of old white dudes in suits giving Powerpoint presentations. It has a "take action" link, but I had to use text-finder to find it, and it linked to more information and more links.
I'm glad environmentalists are armed with so many facts to confront a complex set of crises. I wish we all were. But the movement needs to learn the secret of great communication: Before you can engage their minds, you gotta touch their hearts.