Why global water challenges call for creative advertising

Why global water challenges call for creative advertising

A diamond or a gallon of water, what do you choose? Most of us would go for the diamond. It is a rare stone, which has us convinced it means precious, as most of us believe that price should reflect status. Water, on the other hand, is essential to life, yet the price of a gallon of water is ridiculously low. Residents in most wealthy countries can count on low-priced water flowing from their faucets, making it seem ubiquitous and infinitely accessible.

The truth is, clean accessible water is becoming increasingly rare in its own right, as population and economic growth drive demand, and as water resources become more unreliable in the face of climate change. Yet how we consider and value it does little to reflect this new reality. How can it be that water, far more critical to life than diamonds, is valued so much less?

At the heart of this conundrum is the fact that we have lost our connection to water.

Water, and the infrastructure that manages it, has always been the linchpin of human civilizations. The Tigris, Euphrates and Nile Rivers gave life to the first agricultural societies through irrigation. The iconic Ganges and Yangtze provided identity and nationhood to its people, in India and China respectively. The Colorado, the Mississippi and the Danube were some of the great highways of development for the modern Western economy. The engineers who built the infrastructure that controlled these powerful rivers were viewed as community leaders and heroes. Those aqueducts, canals, dams and levees had a visible and transformative impact on the landscape.

But with the advent of electric pumping and rapid urbanization, water infrastructure moved underground and out of sight, and our connection to water sources evaporated precisely at the wrong time. Today, more than 75 percent of Americans can’t identify their drinking water source. Meanwhile, accessible water around the world is becoming scarce while demand is increasing. During the next two decades, demand for water will exceed current accessible supply by 40 percent, according to this McKinsey study (PDF), and the cost of supply infrastructure is growing every day.

[Learn more about water issues at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

How do we bring these “underground” issues to the surface when messages about the environment, let alone water, rarely make it above the everyday noise?

The advertising market accounts for just under half a trillion dollars in annual expenditure globally, which, coincidentally, is almost as much as the world spends on managing water resources each year (PDF), according to McKinsey. That expenditure markets products, builds consumer awareness, develops brands, creates loyalty and motivates action. On top of that traditional advertising spend, companies also leverage product placement, education and other forms of indirect advertising within the trillion-dollar entertainment industry.

We need to harness the access, creativity and speed provided by our technologically driven, media-intensive, ad-heavy world to reconnect people to their water sources. This will require the environmental community breaking away from the data-saturated approach traditionally used to describe the global challenges we face. This is not easy, particularly because cause-related advertising is often starved of the necessary resources to secure creative talent and amplify messages at a scale that maximizes audience reach. However, a number of marketing strategies are emerging that are attempting to bridge the gap in communicating environmental and social issues to the wider public.

For example:

* Using creative media. Visual artists, filmmakers and writers can create new powerful narratives that shape the way we talk about these challenges. From the 2009 exhibition “Earth: Art of changing world” at the Royal Academy in London where 30 contemporary visual artists engaged on the issue of climate change, to Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions, using documentaries to make complicated topics accessible to the general public, creative media can be used to reframe an issue.

* Tapping into top talent. Environmental organizations typically have limited resources and access to talent to run effective, modern advertising campaigns. But things are changing. Lee Clow, creator of some of Apple’s best-known advertisements, recently partnered with Conservation International to launch a campaign called “Nature is Speaking,” featuring several television ads narrated by celebrities coming from nature’s point of view. As described by the organization, the ads aim to underscore human’s dependence and reliance on nature. Environmental issues deserve the attention of top creative talent.

* Going social. Today, no campaign can exist without a digital strategy. Water.org launched a digital campaign in 2013 to raise awareness of the number of people living without access to clean water and sanitation. Starting with a video of a spoof press conference where actor Matt Damon announced that he would no longer go to the bathroom, the “Strike with Me” campaign assembled other celebrity voices to join Matt’s bathroom strike and build support for greater access to sanitation systems. The campaign allowed people to join the strike by using the #strikewithme hashtag in social media posts and allow Water.org to post content to users’ Facebook and Twitter accounts. Visitors to the microsite also directly could donate to Water.org’s efforts.

* Using the power of products. Leveraging product advertising to bring a message home is something that has enormous potential. Many companies and retailers are adding messaging to product tags highlighting resources that were used, or not used, to create a product. For example, Patagonia launched its Common Threads Initiative — made famous by its “Don’t buy this jacket” advertisement — to encourage people to think about “needing” versus “wanting.” The ads highlighted the demand each product puts on the environment, as well as the company’s business strategy behind the tagline.

A well-funded campaign can tap into all of these strategies in order to reach the largest audience. In my role as director of global water at The Nature Conservancy, I have been involved in starting to move my organization in this direction. Some of the strategies just mentioned recently were deployed, for instance, in a campaign launched in Brazil and Colombia. A combination of local and global private and non-profit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Coca-Cola, Chiquita, WWF, Globo, Caracol, Fundacion Mario SantoDomingo, Caterpillar and Anheuser-Busch InBev, created a campaign called “Where Does Your Water Come From?" ("¿De Dónde Viene Tu Agua?") to raise awareness of water funds and how they can be used to protect water sources.

We were able to leverage the financial and creative resources provided by major companies to promote water awareness at a scale comparable to a traditional product-placement campaign. Together, we developed and ran ads in top print publications and websites, as well as during peak television-watching hours. Companies also provided access to celebrities who delivered the water messaging, increasing the visibility of the campaign. The campaign microsite provided a space where people could learn more about water funds, share information through social platforms and watch video testimonials.

People have the power to shape policy, fight for healthy natural systems, secure their water at its source and challenge companies and governments to make the smartest decisions possible on how to manage water. But these solutions won’t sell themselves. We must make water security a meaningful and personal part of people’s lives in order to drive communities, industries and governments to act. We have to get creative.

If “a diamond is forever,” what’s our water?

Top image: JAB-Anstoetz Grandezza Campaign (2013) with Royal Danish ballerina Josephine Berggreen, by Henrik Sorensen via Flickr.