Save the whales. Stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Ban Arctic drilling.
Slogans like these have been plastered on bumper stickers and chanted at marches for years. But despite being succinct earworms, they’ve all failed to address one key question: Why? Why should the typical American — worried about holding on to their job, providing for their family, and a million mundane challenges — get invested in protecting the environment?
To prevent a climate catastrophe, activists say.
Because it’s our moral responsibility as stewards of the planet, environmentalists argue.
But those reasons typically fall flat with the general public. Too often, issues that are critical to maintaining life on this planet, such as saving endangered species from extinction and blocking fossil-fuel development, get framed solely as ethical matters. Or worse, they get lost in a haze of confusing scientific jargon or grandiose calls to action.
Even after decades of scientific reports and widespread activism, nearly half of Americans in a Pew Research poll said they didn’t view climate change as a major threat. And 56% said they thought that they, as individuals, were already doing enough — or even too much — to reduce the effects of climate change. It’s that profound disconnect between perception and reality that’s preventing us from taking the kind of urgent and sustained action necessary to prevent a planetwide catastrophe
The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of scientific information or moral reasons to act. The problem comes down to ineffective marketing. To connect with the average person, environmental campaigns need to focus more on how helping the environment helps individuals.
Marketing, at its core, is about shaping perception. And while the complexity and scale of the climate crisis can be difficult to capture in a tagline, we need to draw on the profession’s proven expertise at persuasion to help raise awareness, mobilize the public, and shift our national priorities.
It’s not enough, marketing experts say, to emphasize that an issue is important. “Even great and important things don’t often get the attention they need,” Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said. “There are lots of things competing for people’s attention. That’s why we need to think about messaging.” Translating the climate crisis into an effective marketing campaign, he said, means focusing not on the abstract importance of the issue but on the concrete needs of the audience.
Climate issues are often framed as a choice between selfishness and selflessness: Either you care about your money and your job, or you care about helping the planet. In this false dichotomy, it’s clear where most people come down: In a recent Gallup poll of Americans, only 3% of respondents ranked the environment as the most important issue facing the country today, versus 34% who said the economy was most important. Average people, this seems to suggest, are more concerned about whether they will be able to afford a good life for their children than whether certain animals will be around in 30 years.
In reality, though, the economy and environment are intricately intertwined. Increasing the energy efficiency of your home, for example, is a clear way to reduce your utility bills. But that’s not how environmental issues are usually marketed.
Consider the Keystone XL pipeline, which was designed to bring oil sands from Canada into the US. The political left opposed the pipeline on environmental grounds, including its perpetuation of fossil-fuel reliance and the potential for oil spills. The right supported the pipeline on economic grounds, claiming that its construction would generate over 100,000 jobs.
But the battle over the pipeline should never have been framed as a choice between the environment and the economy. Better marketing would have emphasized the very real and immediate cost of climate change — which the pipeline may have exacerbated — as well as all the jobs that could be created by focusing on clean energy, not just fossil fuels. (That’s the message the Biden administration adopted to promote the Inflation Reduction Act, touting the more than 170,000 estimated jobs it created in one year.)
Environmental advocates still struggle to make seemingly far-off issues a kitchen-table concern for Americans. Take oil drilling in Alaska, for example. When campaigns to ban Arctic drilling focus on protecting local ecosystems, that can leave people who live far from the Arctic wondering why the issue matters to them. Fortunately, that messaging is starting to change.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration approved the Willow project for oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which drew significant backlash from environmental advocates. Attempts to reframe the discussion to talk about the global effects of the drilling, such as more extreme weather, have had more success, Jenna DiPaolo, the chief communications officer of Greenpeace USA, said.
“While there were images of the pristine wilderness, there was also a lot of messaging about the impact this project would have on our global climate — and, consequently, on our ability to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and not suffer ever-worsening hurricanes, floods, and fires,” DiPaolo said.
The more human-centric messaging had a somewhat positive impact. In September, the Biden administration expanded environmental protections in the petroleum reserve and canceled oil- and gas-lease sales in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Still, a new administration could easily switch back to more fossil-fuel-friendly policies. And while some environmental groups try to bring the issues home, too much marketing still focuses on morality.
In recent years, many companies have tried to market their products by presenting them as climate-friendly. But those campaigns have produced some notable missteps. A good example of bad climate marketing comes from the Irish budget airline Ryanair. Since air travel blasts a lot of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, hastening the effects of climate change, airlines such as Ryanair have started offering flyers ways to “offset” the emissions caused by their travel. Carbon offsets involve contributing money to a project that will help avoid, reduce, or remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or building wind farms.
In 2018, Ryanair started offering customers the option to pay an additional fee to offset the carbon footprint
We are intrinsically selfish beings. We want to know what it means for us.Ben Forman, CEO of Wrestler
However, whale preservation does, in fact, have a lot to do with combating the climate crisis. Whales fertilize oceans, creating conditions for the growth of microscopic algae, which can capture carbon. And when whales die, most fall to the ocean floor, carrying carbon in their bodies that will stay out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years. “When it comes to saving the planet, one whale is worth thousands of trees,” a report by the International Monetary Fund said.
Aside from the bigger problems with carbon offsets, the key mistake Ryanair made was that it didn’t explain why saving the whales was critical to reducing carbon emissions, which ultimately helps people enjoy life on this planet. Companies trying to present themselves as climate-friendly typically fail to make that link, leading people to dismiss their environmental efforts as corporate eyewash. Considering that only 3% of Ryanair passengers participate in its carbon-offsetting program, the airline’s marketing efforts clearly did not work.
Some of the most successful corporate efforts at climate marketing place more emphasis on consumers’ personal concerns. Ben Forman, the CEO of the marketing agency Wrestler, has worked on campaigns for the sustainable-shoe company Allbirds. While being good for the environment is a key part of the brand, that’s not the sole focus of how Allbirds markets the shoes. For example, Forman said, the company emphasizes how its use of sustainable materials, such as merino wool, improves the quality of the shoe.
Businesses can get lost talking about sustainability by putting it at the forefront of their messaging, when instead the focus should be on the product first, he said. “We are intrinsically selfish beings,” Forman added. “We want to know what it means for us.”
Tesla is another example of a popular brand that’s sustainability-adjacent and has successfully marketed itself without getting bogged down in the environmental details. “They’ve done a really neat job of realizing that part of the reason that people buy a car
But not enough organizations are taking this approach and moving the needle toward a more sustainable world. According to the International Energy Agency, global carbon emissions reached a record high last year. It’s clear that the current marketing approach to the climate crisis isn’t cutting it. Sounding the alarm bells isn’t enough. People need to see what’s in it for them.
Instead of talking about emissions levels, talk about how the climate crisis could increase childhood asthma rates and incidences of Lyme disease. Instead of talking about why sharks are awe-inspiring creatures, talk about how keeping them alive provides more economic benefits through tourism. And instead of reiterating incremental degrees of planetary warming, talk about how a single blackout during the summer could send half of Phoenix to the emergency room. The United Nations
The more you focus on what everyday people care about, Berger said, the more effective your marketing campaign will be. “They don’t care about us. They care about themselves,” he said.
“The more we can show them why doing what we would like them to do is beneficial for them — not just for the world but beneficial for them — the more likely they’ll be to want to do it.”
Jake Safane is a freelance writer specializing in finance and sustainability. He has investments in sustainability-related companies, including some involved in renewable energy. He also works with sustainability-related businesses, including some involved with carbon offsets.