Thoughts on Marketing the Climate Change Issue

By Sirid Kellermann

After spending a decade in R&D positions in biotech, I recently parlayed my MBA into a marketing role. This is a bit ironic, considering that not that long ago, I considered marketers to be bottom feeders who find out what makes you tick and then use that information to shove something you don’t want down your throat. But I’m beginning to appreciate that marketing can be about helping connect your company or organization with customers who really do want or need the products or services you provide. It’s a powerful skill that can be transformative – and one that I think could be put to good use outside of the realm of conventional business, as well.

Here’s an example. Recently, NASA released a report titled 2009: Second Warmest Year on Record; End of Warmest Decade. Climate Progress ran the story and included an excerpt of the report in its headline: “In total, average global temperatures have increased by about 0.8°C (1.5°F) since 1880.”

Now, although I lay awake at night fretting about climate change, my response to that statement was “meh.” As taglines go, this one was about as exciting as reading toilet paper. Which got me wondering about whether people’s resistance to acknowledging anthropogenic climate change is because such statements fail to generate a sense of urgency. It’s essentially a marketing challenge: how do we create drama without hype, and capture people’s imagination in an authentic, but effective way?

To do some “market research” I went to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and spent $11 to get 100 people to read the statement I quoted above, and then respond immediately as to whether they thought this was a big temperature change, and whether they were concerned about it. A surprisingly (to me) high proportion of respondents – 45% – thought it was a big change; 47% didn’t think so. Almost half – 49% – were concerned about it; 46% were not (interestingly, among the unconcerned, eight respondents did think it was a big temperature change; but at least one figured that God would provide).

As a scientist, I’d prefer to present the facts objectively and help educate people to appreciate the magnitude, in terms of social and environmental repercussions, of a seemingly small change in temperature. But my inner marketer thinks that urgent systemic threats call for more dramatic measures.

My proposal is that instead of counting up – which in theory has no limit – we should consider counting down, along the lines of the Doomsday Clock. The clock is a nearly universal and familiar symbol that is much easier to relate to than 1.5°F or 350 parts per million, or for that matter a melting polar ice cap or a bunch of displaced Bangladeshis. Viscerally, too, there’s a greater sense of urgency when something has a discrete and visible limit or end. At the same time, the ability to dial it back provides opportunity for hope.

Greater minds than mine will need to figure out how to avoid the PR nightmare if such a symbolic device were to be invalidated – a real risk given experts’ inability to accurately predict when exactly the system will reach the critical tipping point. Can we minimally learn to avoid the sort of flak the tenders of the Doomsday Clock have caught from the likes of Keith Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy, and ensure that the climate change “clock” remains a credible and powerful symbol?

To my new-found marketing brothers and sisters, I say, stop trying to sell me a Hummer and let’s get to work on this!

A scientist, parent, and understated sustainability activist, Sirid Kellermann is equally interested in applying business approaches to solving societal and environmental issues, as she is in applying social and environmental values to create successful businesses and organizations.  She has a Ph.D. in immunology and an MBA from the Presidio Graduate School.

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