After Live Earth: A National Campaign to Change American Attitudes on Green

One of the most vexing challenges today is changing and shaping American attitudes toward the environment.  Campaigns such as the Live Earth concert last weekend are making headway in building awareness and educating the masses.  But, much more work needs to be done – by governments, environmental organizations and even businesses – to change consumer attitudes toward green and to translate this shift into action.   

Marketing Green believes now is the time for a national campaign to do just that.  This campaign should preferably use a single communications platform that leverages a core route of persuasion (see Marketing Green’s “Shaping Attitudes on Green”, June 21, 2007) and that resonates across a wide spectrum of Americans.  It is hard to dispute the need for such a campaign: “North Americans consistently ranked [the] least aware and least concerned about global warming” relative to people across any other continent, with 13% of US respondents saying that they have never heard of global warming (ACNielsen survey, January 2007).  

Some marketers may advocate focusing on individual consumer segments that are perhaps more predisposed to the message.  There is indeed merit in this approach as it focuses resources where the incremental impact in the near term is the greatest.  However, these individual campaigns are arguably not sufficient to drive broad societal change by themselves.  A national campaign (or at least a unifying platform across individual efforts) is more likely to build momentum toward a tipping point where attitudes across a broad spectrum of Americans are transformed; such a campaign can also create sufficient momentum to translate this attitude change into action. 

Learning from Past Campaigns: Rare Conservation’s PRIDE Campaign

When thinking about a model for a national campaign, it is important to draw upon learnings from past market campaigns.

One benchmark, for example, is the successful PRIDE campaigns developed and launched by non-profit group Rare Conservation (RC) to motivate land and resource conservation in underdeveloped nations.  During a recent interview Marketing Green conducted with RC, CEO Brett Jenks identified three key market and campaign attributes that are critical to his organization’s success: 1) they focus on homogeneous populations that are 2) in isolated media markets, and 3) they involve a population that is fundamentally tied to nature for its substance.  

What is interesting about how RC shapes attitudes is that it relies on conditions that are for the most part absent within the US.  For example, Americans are a heterogeneous people – one of our core strengths but a hindrance in shaping attitudes, as building consensus may take more time.  Moreover, Americans live in a saturated media market where it is difficult and costly to breakthrough with messaging when consumers are continuously inundated.   

Finally, Americans tend to be disconnected with the natural environment in large part because they are no longer directly involved in activities that provide for their sustenance.  Without this connection, it is more difficult for consumers to appreciate how the choices they make impact the environment as well as to motivate them to rethink their attitudes and their actions. 

Tailoring the Campaign to the US 

Although RC’s successes have come from attributes that do not necessarily translate to the US, there are lessons to be learned from their approach. Here are a few suggestions for marketers attempting to develop a national campaign within the US: 

Don’t build a brand from scratch.  Unlike in underdeveloped media markets where RC focuses it efforts, it is an expensive proposition to launch a national campaign in the US,  especially when building a brand from scratch.  As such, marketers should seek to leverage an existing brand – perhaps the brand of a well-known and charismatic spokesperson – that can deliver a credible message on green.  Ideally, that individual (or individuals) will already have the credibility to connect heterogeneous groups and the media star power to shine in a crowded media market (helping to overcome considerations #1 and 2).  Politicians such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Michael Bloomberg or rock musician Bono or actor Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, have become early leaders in this field. 

Make global warming relevant to the American experience. A national campaign must motivate Americans to change their attitudes toward global warming.  While this is a difficult task – as Americans have become largely disconnected from nature as the source of their subsistence – it is hardly an impossible one.   

Take Australia as one example.  Over the past year, politics have been upended in Australia due to drought, one that many scientists think is the worst that this island-continent has seen in 1,000 years.  The result: a dramatic turnabout in the country’s embracing of global warming as an issue and willingness to take action to reduce its impact.  Today, in fact, Australians rank global warming as their #1 concern (The Guardian, November 2006; International Herald Tribune, November 6, 2006; ACNielsen, July 4, 2007)   

Can drought – or more broadly, the impact of scarce water resources on the American experience – be a motivating force that moves Americans to reconsider their views on global warming?  It is possible. 

A case can be made in the US: Not only is drought persistent across much of the US Southeast, Southwest and West this summer, but drier conditions are expected to continue in the years to come (and in the Southwest, models predict for the next 90 years).  (NOAA Seasonal Drought Outlook, 2007; USA Today, June 7, 2007; MSNBC, April 5, 2007). 


Moreover, warmer weather has resulted in other, perhaps less intuitive, consequences: Shipping vessels in the Great Lakes must set sail with reduced cargo in their holds as water levels have fallen in the lakes due to higher-than-usual water evaporation, early snow melt in the Rockies has reduced available runoff in rivers for irrigation and recreation, and warmer, drier conditions are fueling forest and brush fires across the West.  (Chicago Tribune, June 21, 2007; Rocky Mountain News, June 26, 2007)  

This information should not, however, be positioned as a scare tactic, as such scaremongering runs the risk of backfiring with Americans.   

Instead, marketers should focus on how climate change impacts the collective American experience, namely, the opportunity that this nation provides for a better life for us and our children and our children’s children.  Images of Americans struggling to succeed despite adversity generate powerful emotions.  Americans have almost a visceral response when this American experience seems compromised or threatened.   

Green marketers should tap into this emotion with messaging and images that connect global warming with the fight to preserve this American experience:  The struggling farmer, burdened by debt from failed crops over the past few years, plants seeds in the spring in the hopes of a bountiful harvest this year.   The firefighter that overcomes exhaustion to save another home while battling brush fires that come with more frequency and intensity.  The ski resort owner struggling to stay afloat as the ski season shortens.    

Such a campaign should honor each of these Americans for the good fight that they are fighting to preserve their way of life, but message that it is an uphill battle for each without action on global warming.   

Learning from Past Campaigns: Live 8 Concert 

Once Americans make the connection between global warming and the preservation of the American experience, marketers need to motivate Americans to take action to mitigate global warming’s impact.  Understanding how to motivate Americans to take action is critical.  For example, Warren Buffett once gave advice to rock singer Bono on how to promote the Live 8 concert (intended to pressure G-8 leaders to forgive debt and increase aid to Africa) in the US.  Buffett said, “Don’t appeal to the conscience of America. Appeal to the greatness of America, and you’ll get the job done.”  (Time Magazine, June 19, 2005)  

The case of global warming is no different.  To appeal to America’s sense of greatness requires marketers to create a platform that incorporates three key dimensions: 

Set a clear direction and purpose: As vanguards of freedom and liberty, Americans want to be reassured that they are moving in the right direction and operating on the right side of history.  Today, many Americans are frustrated by inaction and concerned that our stance on climate change may be on wrong side.  Americans want a leader to be bold and advocate for action on issues like climate change simply because it is the right thing to do. 

Leverage an aspirational message:  We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.   If Marketing Green is critical of anything about the Live Earth concert, it is that its producers urged concertgoers and viewers to think small; the concert’s anthem seemed to say that through small acts we will all make a difference.  While this is true and a necessary starting point, it is simply hard to capture people’s imagination when focused on something as mundane as changing light bulbs. 

Alternatively, what is needed is to set a higher bar for your target audience.  Every American generation has faced adversity and risen to the occasion when challenged to do so, whether it be war or a space race.  Americans respond to leaders that set extraordinary goals.  They are up to the challenge. 

Exploit our fascination with industrial and technological achievement: Americans believe, perhaps some what incorrectly, that technology will fix or mitigate our global warming issue without a major change in our lifestyle.  Marketers should capitalize on this by providing examples of what we should be striving for. 

How about a new transmission ‘highway’ that brings windpower from the Plains states to cities like Chicago so that electric cars that plug into the grid can be powered (carbon free) at night? Or, how about a ‘hydrogen highway’ that provides fueling stations for cars powered by fuel cells from Baha to Alaska?  What about paper-thin solar cells that can be affixed to anything for cheap?  Or perhaps geothermal energy that taps the natural heating and cooling power of the earth under your house?  Provide a grand vision and Americans will reach to achieve it. 

So, green marketers, it is time to launch a national campaign to change American attitudes toward global warming and to translate this sentiment into substantive action.  Help Americans make a connection to global warming, not out of fear, but rather by associating it with those living the American experience, struggling to preserve what they have as climate change takes its toll.  Think big and expect great things from Americans.  They will put their hearts and minds and collective spirit together to realize them.

25 thoughts on “After Live Earth: A National Campaign to Change American Attitudes on Green

  1. True enough, building awareness does take time, let alone keeping brand loyalty alive and well. In the UK the market for ‘green’ products and services has moved up a gear but it has still got a long way to go.

  2. Completely agree with the need for a bold vision – and while I can imagine the debates within the Live Earth campaign teams about the need to promote some “simple” small-scale changes that people can do to make a difference – it would be so much more powerful to imagine a national or international campaign promoting an aggressive vision. Imagine the power of what we witnessed with Kennedy’s articulation of a vision for mankind’s travel to the Moon. We absolutely do need a real call to arms with a catalyzing vision of a future where we tackle deforestation, harness the sun and wind and travel about with minimal impact on the planet!

  3. In regards to Geothermal Energy solutions, i would like to commend you on your grassroots campaign. I have been very interested in geothermal energy as of late, especially after Gov. Schwarzenegger formed a bill into law that set a CO2 limit on coal plants as a future source of electricity in the West Coast market. This is a good (early) time for geothermal energy production. Keep the information alive….and check out this report also.


  4. Unfortunately, I don’t think that water will do the trick. The U.S. is too large and diverse–geographically and economically–for something like drought to galvanize people. Sure, it can happen regionally. But even Katrina didn’t bring the country together in a sustained, unified way. And that is because, quite simply, if it doesn’t happen to you or someone you love, it’s easy to forget about it.

    Preventative action is just not something built into the fabric of American culture, at least not anymore. Just look at our health and debt epidemics. And that is the challenge in getting people to take action now to prevent the worst of global warming impacts in the future.

    If you want to get people to take action now, they need to feel the value NOW. That is why polls show that Americans respond more to cost and cost savings than environmental protection. The good news is that so many of the actions people need to take to reduce their impact on the climate also happen to save them money. This, I think, needs to be more effectively messaged.

    I do believe that the way to get the mainstream engaged is to make it easy and rewarding for them to do so. That is why our humble little effort is about helping people take their first steps.

  5. In most cases we need to lead by example. As more us show our “Green Attitude” by using our Green Backs for Green Products it will push and sway the industry. The biggest thing we can do is opt in for the Hybrid Cars as our Main day to day personal advertisement campaign. Just my two cents.

  6. Pingback: Drought Can Spark a National Dialogue on Climate Change - Part II « Marketing Green

  7. Dear David
    I came across your blog during my research for my thesis, which is on the application of PR during Live Earth. I’m a Masters student in the PR and Corporate Communications course at NYU, where Lou Capozzi from Publicis is among my faculty.
    I’m hoping to set up time for a brief interview as I would greatly appreciate your opinion on the event – in terms of its success regarding its message, reputation and effectiveness, etc.
    Please let me know when and how to contact you and I look forward to speaking with you soon.
    Warmest thanks

  8. The best way to spread the message is get young musicians to spread it in the way young people like. As long as the youth think the guys/musicians are cool then the messege will be cool. we have already started with writing the songs we only need to get to audiances like live earth.Just help us get there if you can

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  13. Dear David

    The best way to againts global warming is we must start now, not only thinking and planning, not write on paper only. But we should do first.


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