Branding Climate Change: Think Smaller



The ice caps are melting, glaciers are shrinking and average temperatures are rising. Food insecurity, broken ecosystems, mass extinction, yadda yadda yadda – the real question is: what does this tell us about branding?

A Brief History of  “Climate Change”

First, a little background. When scientists started to conclude that human activity was impacting climate, they called it “inadvertent climate modification” (sexy, right?) because they didn’t know how things would be affected. In the mid 70’s, that was shortened to Climate Change, and the concept of ‘Global Warming’ was coined to refer specifically to “the average global surface temperature increase from human emissions of greenhouse gases.” Later, scientists introduced the term “Global Change” as an omnibus term that includes factors not related to climate.

That’s the jargon in the scientific community. In the real world, we’re hearing Climate Change more often than Global Warming, but laypersons often use the two interchangeably. By using either of these terms as their rallying cry, people trying to draw attention to the issue are making a big branding mistake.

Global Warming? What Global Warming?

You see – here’s the thing about global warming and climate change (other than fact that it was a cold, snowy winter for many people last year): they’re big, they’re complicated, they’re hard to observe, they seem to be happening somewhere other than here and they’re measured in decades if not centuries.

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reference a study in which participants asked to donate to a charitable cause were twice as likely to give if the appeal focused on a single child rather than on the entire problem (a phenomenon called The Mother Theresa effect). The terms Climate Change and Global Warming may capture the scope of the problem, but they aren’t as effective calls to action as a more specific term or phrase might be.

Don’t Bury the Lead

The same book cites another instructive anecdote, which we’ll quote from this website:

“The first day of class, Ephron’s teacher announced the first assignment: to write the lead to a newspaper story.

The teacher reeled off the facts:”Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.

Ephron and most of the other students produced leads that reordered the facts and condensed them into a single sentence: “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills faculty Thursday in Sacramento…blah, blah, blah.

The teacher collected the leads and scanned them rapidly. Then he laid them aside and paused for a moment.Finally, he said, “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday.'”


He translated the dry facts into a relevant concept for readers — the essence of the story they would truly care about.

Putting aside for a moment the debate over what’s causing it and how quickly it may or may not be happening, Climate Change and Global Warming are the dry facts (no pun intended). But are they the relevant concept that audiences will truly care about, or is there an opportunity to strike a more visceral cord?

Bringing it Back to Brands: Think Smaller, Think More Specific

Brands have had to deal with issues just like these for decades. Every business leader worth her or his salt knows that you can’t be all things to all people. In order to build a strong brand, you have to define the right audience for your products and services and then use your brand to communicate a value proposition that is compelling, credible and differentiated. Think of your brand as “the lead”  for your organization’s or businesses’s story. It doesn’t say everything, but it says the most important thing.

BMW positions its brand on performance. Volvo built its brand on safety.

BMW and Volvo provide great examples of good branding at work. They each chose a very specific value proposition on which to build their brands. It doesn’t mean that BMW never talks about safety, that Volvo never mentions performance, or that they both didn’t talk about price, comfort, options, fuel efficiency or all of the other things that people care about when it comes to choosing a car. But it does mean that they chose a lead, and they didn’t bury it. Nearly all of their communications start with or strongly link back to that core brand value proposition.

What’s a Brand (or Climate) Warrior to Do?

It’s not an easy choice for a business or organization to make.

For the committed advocate who is equally worried about weather patterns, biodiversity, natural resources and more, even Climate Change and Global Warming may not be expansive enough to capture the issue. But if that advocate’s goal is to convince and even recruit fence-sitters and skeptics, it’s time to think smaller and more relevant, not bigger and less concrete.

If we were in charge of drawing attention to the climate issue, we’d focus on air quality and pollution. 250 million of the 311 million people living in the United States live in cities, where smog, smokestacks, smelly exhaust and asthma detract from personal quality of life on a daily basis. Convincing people that clean air is better than dirty air doesn’t take a whole lot of confusing scientific backup. Air quality and pollution don’t capture the totality of the problem, but they just might strike the chord that makes people care enough to demand action from those in charge, or even take action themselves.

Businesses have to make the same difficult choices in order to build strong brands. You have to think hard about the aspect of your business, your products and your services that most effectively connects with your target.

  • – What keeps them up at night?
  • – What is your competition offering them?
  • – What is it that only you can do for them?

If you can find the idea at the intersection of the answers to these three questions, then you’ll have found your lead. If you communicate it effectively and consistently, it will tell your stakeholders not just what you do, but whey they should care. And that’s what great brands and worthy causes are built on.

Top Banner credit: WWF: Every Like Saves Lives

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