Category: Consumer Brand

For Environmental Groups, the Red Herring of Climate Change Denial is a Valuable Opportunity to “Mine the Middle”

Climate change denial is an all too popular refrain. National media outlets frequently herald its prevalence. Recently, the New York Times questioned which was worse, climate denial or climate hypocrisy, while the Washington Post editorial board opined that climate change denial is “unforgivable.” NPR routinely covers both climate change denial and climate misinformation.

Politicians do their part to keep the issue top-of-mind. Since the environment is among the many fault lines separating Democrats and Republicans, climate change denial is a characterization frequently leveled against lawmakers. One non-partisan policy group assembles a list of climate change deniers in both the House of Representatives and Senate with each new Congress.

On social media, claims of climate change denial are predictably rampant. A 2022 study published by Nature finds “a large increase in ideological polarization during UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), following low polarization between COP20 and COP25” based on an analysis of Twitter data from 2014 to 2021.

The unassailable truth about climate change denial, however, is that it scarcely exists in America. According to a 2021 poll by the AP, the NORC Center and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, a mere 10% of Americans don’t believe that climate change is real, whereas the vast majority of Americans (75%) believe that it is.

These findings correspond with a 2021 poll by the Washington Post and ABC News in which 67% of respondents regard climate change as a serious problem, let alone acknowledge its existence. Similarly, a 2021 survey by Pew Research Center finds that majorities of Americans believe society is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.

The bluster surrounding climate change denial is a red herring that says more about our balkanized culture than the attitudes of the average American. For environmental groups, this represents a valuable opportunity to temper today’s counterproductively divisive rhetoric on the topic and, in so doing, compel more people to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

Think of the approach as “mining the middle”—using common ground issues, including the recognition of climate change’s importance, to educate and mobilize stakeholders. However, since various research studies reveal significant differences in attitudes on the topic based on age, race, ethnicity and political affiliation, organizations will need to be targeted and nuanced in their efforts.

Prioritize the stakeholders who matter most. Given that attitudes and behaviors of donors, volunteers and advocates are markedly different, environmental groups should use market research to identify the population segments with the greatest potential to be current and future supporters while assessing their awareness of and attitudes toward the organization and its peers. Without such clarity, organizations will have no choice but to rely on one-size-fits-all engagement strategies that will inevitably prove inefficient.

Think locally, not just globally. Climate change is typically framed in universal terms, but stakeholders generally view environmental issues through a local lens. Therefore, while environmental groups should examine the global causes of climate change and the need for a global response to counter its effects, they should also emphasize how climate change is impacting local ecosystems and communities. Likewise, they would do well to create local connections with community leaders, lawmakers and other stakeholders.

Lean into the science. For most environmental groups, there is no greater means of gaining trust and influence with stakeholders than demonstrating their use of science. Organizations should explain the extent to which they use scientific data to educate stakeholders about environmental issues, inform policy prescriptions and measure the efficacy of their conservation efforts. They, too, should highlight the scientific credentials of key staffers.

Speak in measured terms. The news media are using increasingly alarmist terms when addressing climate change, including “climate catastrophe” and “climate emergency,” according to a 2021 study by the University of Colorado. However, such terms alienate large swaths of consumers, including those who prioritize environmental issues and those who are uncertain of climate change’s importance.

It’s not the responsibility of environmental groups to reduce polarization in society, but it is their mission to educate and mobilize stakeholders to protect the environment. Climate change is a singular threat that necessitates collective action in the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon. Mine the middle.

The founder and principal of Timbre Strategies, Bob Knott, has led brand studies on behalf of such environmental groups as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Everglades Foundation and Nature Conservancy while working with such Fortune 500 companies as DuPont, GE, Walmart and Waste Management to shape and communicate their environmental efforts.

Environmental Non-Profits Need a New Marketing Playbook. And They Need It Now.

As published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy

For more than a decade, we’ve helped multinational, national and regional environmental non-profits advance their conservation objectives by enhancing the efficacy of their communications, fund raising and advocacy efforts. Through the lens of primary research, we have identified pervasive trends affecting today’s environmental non-profits—attitudinal and behavioral shifts that dictate a significant departure from the traditional approach to stakeholder engagement.

Many environmental organizations are perilously dependent on older donors. The percentage of donors who are 55 years of age and older was never less than 50 percent of an organization’s donor file and was occasionally as high as 70 percent. Also, for most environmental non-profits, donors significantly curtail their financial contributions upon retirement, save for bequests.

The attitudes and behaviors of younger supporters are markedly different from those of previous generations. Millennials are more environmentally conscious than previous generations, but for them the environment is one of a larger, more diverse set of societal priorities that competes for their time and money. Also, they place equal emphasis on their everyday behavior to protect the environment, from recycling to the brands they patronize, as making a donation. Millennials, too, are more likely to believe that many of the world’s environmental challenges will be solved by new technologies, not simply the work of non-profits.

Despite today’s partisan climate, environmental organizations attract supporters of all political stripes. While the donors, advocates and volunteers of environmental groups generally skew Democratic, they also represent significant percentages of self-described Republicans and Independents. While people of varying political identities often share common environmental priorities, they frequently differ in their opinions about how these priorities are best addressed. Republicans favor public education and hands-on conservation to governmental regulation, for example, while Democrats are not averse to the use of litigation to advance and protect environmental interests.

Today’s communications ecosystem elevates the importance of “people like me”. Social media, in particular, places a premium on word-of-mouth communications.  Before the average Millennial or Gen Xer donates, volunteers or advocates on behalf of an environmental non-profit, they must first hear good things about the organization from “people like me”.

Today’s environmental non-profits require new strategies for cultivating their next generation of donors and advocates, especially given the advancing age of their traditional supporters. While such strategies are unique to each organization—just as each environmental non-profit has its own priorities, operational competencies and peer sets—they invariably include the following imperatives.

Identify your priority segments and meet them where they are. An environmental non-profit’s current and prospective supporters typically fall into three or four prime segments whose members, while sharing a common commitment to the environment, possess different demographic and psychographic characteristics. An organization must tailor messaging and engagement strategies to each segment if it is to make inroads with younger donors, advocates and volunteers.

Increase trust by linking impact attributes. The greater the trust a person has in an organization, the greater the likelihood they will act on its behalf. However, because trust is influenced by a combination of individual attributes an organization demonstrates, environmental non-profits need to understand the attributes their supporters value most, as well as the potency of their relationship to one another. Donors may particularly appreciate a non-profit’s “local impact” and the “use of a conservation plan”, for example, but demonstrating that the local impact is a result of an organization’s long-term plan can significantly bolster trust.

Showcase organizational leadership, while tapping “people like me”.   The leadership profiles of environmental organization’s CEO or chief conservationist have long been a common prerequisite for trust. Because the strength of an organization’s leadership is largely attributable to the expressed opinions of “people like me”, environmental non-profits need to use digital and social media to engage Millennials regarding the vision and work of their senior leaders, and leverage their volunteers and staff as advocates

Act like a news organization. One of the traits shared by various generations of environmental supporters is an appetite for objective, unbiased information. Compounding this appetite is the expectation that organizations make a priority of educating the next generation of environmental stewards. Those that do this particularly well create a steady cadence of high-quality original content addressing their environmental priorities, while spotlighting their key personnel and signature initiatives.

Tens of millions of Americans are highly concerned about environmental threats ranging from climate change to chemical contamination, but converting the concern of younger supporters into action requires new and different approaches. The aging donor bases of many environmental non-profits, in particular, underscore the urgency to develop and implement new stakeholder engagement strategies.

Bob Knott is founder and principal of Timbre Strategies and Jason McGrath is a senior vice president at Ipsos.

The Curious Case of Colin Kaepernick and Nike

As we explained earlier this year, more businesses are participating in the public discourse surrounding divisive social issues, undeterred by today’s hyper-partisan climate. While their impetus to do so varies, many companies are appealing to the interests of their customers and employees. For a company to do otherwise is to imperil its wellbeing, after all. That is why most businesses, before taking a public stand on an issue, invest in market research to approximate the reactions of key stakeholders.

Even by these emerging standards, however, Nike’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign is arrestingly bold. Not only is Kaepernick a polarizing figure for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games to protest racial injustices, the former San Francisco 49er is suing the league—an important Nike partner.

The company’s move provoked an array of responses, ranging from predictable Hatfield/McCoy standoffs on social media to a modest selloff in Nike shares. In a Wednesday Tweet, veteran pollster Frank Lutz railed against the move: “What happens when the world’s most popular sports brand doesn’t do its research? It loses $4 billion. I am continually amazed when big brands that should know better still make colossal errors based on faulty judgment. I’m sure they will sell more stuff… But is it worth it?” Separately, a poll of U.S. consumers was released Thursday indicating that 24 percent of respondents now view the brand unfavorably, up from 7 percent.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Nike’s actions will be accretive to the company’s long-term success. Nevertheless, there is an apparent logic to Nike’s strategy that is instructive to stewards of both consumer and corporate brands.

Mine new markets – The new Just Do It Campaign is evidence that Nike is playing a long game that is aided by the revitalization of its brand. As Oppenheimer’s Brian Nagel observed, “the extensive roster of athletes and their powerful stories are core to the company’s stepped up efforts in reaching a younger demographic”—a market segment that, at least domestically, values social activism. Moreover, the company is targeting 12 priority markets in an online sales offensive, only two of which, New York and Los Angeles, are located in the U.S.

Tap one’s heritage – In ways that are scarcely recognizable to the diversified holding company that it is today, Nike was an upstart brand that represented a fresh alternative to Adidas, Puma and Converse. Just Do It wasn’t simply a departure from industry conventions, it constituted an in-your-face challenge to athletes and consumers alike to dig deep to be their best. The company’s willingness to take chances has occasionally backfired, including the cringe-worthy 2010 television commercial in which Tiger Woods was asked by his deceased father if he had “learned anything” in response to the golfer’s marital infidelities that dominated the headlines. For better or worse, Nike has been steadfastly daring.

Contemporize the brand – In 1995, Michael Jordan, a Nike pillar, reportedly quipped that “Republicans buy sneakers too” when asked why he didn’t weigh in on political and social issues. Even in the pre-social media days of yore, the world’s most famous athlete was criticized for playing it safe, which he acknowledged in a 2016 essay, “I Can No Longer Stay Silent.” And so it is that athletes and other popular culture figures today aren’t simply tolerated for expressing their views, they are expected to demonstrate them. Therefore, Nike casts Kaepernick as an embodiment of what it means to just do something, only now in ways that transcend sports.

Embrace the chaos – It’s not for nothing that Nike elected to launch the new Just Do It campaign with a Tweet by Kaepernick, willfully making a splash in the contentious end of the social media spectrum. The rollout strategy is notable not because the company initiated an important conversation—as if social media routinely enables measured discourse among parties who disagree—but because it substantiates Nike’s narrative that doing something that matters frequently entails pushback and, sometimes, the need to go it alone. It is also a calculated gamble that more online influencers would act as advocates than detractors, an outcome that benefits the campaign in ways that nether paid nor earned media can.

Nike hasn’t been pitch perfect in its efforts thus far. For example, Just Do It’s signature phrase—Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.—would have greater impact had Kaepernick not been under contract with the company as an unemployed quarterback. Still, the campaign has the potential to significantly advance Nike’s overarching business strategy. And, no matter the increased emphasis on social issues, that remains the foremost utility of business communications.