With Potential Energy, Madison Avenue takes on climate change

Two Steps Forward

With Potential Energy, Madison Avenue takes on climate change

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This article is drawn from the GreenBuzz newsletter from GreenBiz, running Mondays.

Can Madison Avenue change the conversation about climate change in America?

Last month, 17 of New York's top marketing, advertising and communications agencies came together with leading climate scientists to launch an effort "to motivate urgent and collective action" to address the climate crisis. The new nonprofit coalition, Potential Energy, was incubated by the creative consultancy Lippincott and its chief strategy officer John Marshall, in partnership with Dan Schrag, director of the Harvard Center for the Environment.

"Through a targeted portfolio of advocacy campaigns, Potential Energy aims to educate the public about climate change, simplify the language around what is needed to mitigate its long-term impact and mobilize action," stated the press release announcing the initiative.

It’s an audacious goal, and a challenging one, as anyone knows who’s attempted to have a levelheaded conversation about climate with someone who isn't convinced it's an actual threat, let alone an existential one.

Karmic payback

But maybe some karmic payback is going on here: Madison Avenue holds more than a little responsibility for getting us where we are, having persuaded us over the last half-century or so to buy and amass an ever-increasing conglomeration of things we didn’t necessarily know we wanted — and then to buy even more — with little regard for planetary implications. Granted, they were doing this on behalf of their clients' products and brands, but still.

I recently asked Lippincott's Marshall, who is also president of Potential Energy, how the coalition plans to take on this behemoth task.

"The first part of the plan is a realization that we need to think differently about what the narrative is, and that quite honestly, traditional green narratives have not been connecting with a broad enough base of the audience in order to drive the urgency," he told me. "We need a lot more public will, and to get to that public will we're going to need a new narrative, one that de-polarizes and de-liberalizes the issue and moves beyond traditional messages of the environmental community and broadens it."

Amen to that.

Marshall’s team at Lippincott conducted a market segmentation based on querying 6,000 U.S. voters. "What's interesting when you look at the segmentation is that the traditional environmentalist community is only 13 percent of the voting population," said Marshall. "So, the question we asked ourselves is, ‘How do we have climate messages or clean energy messages or renewable energy messages that connect with the other 87 percent? How do they think? What do they value? What motivates them? What tribes do they live in?’"

And: "We're using the marketer’s toolkit to say, ‘How do we actually make this relevant?’"

It's a timely, urgent mission. Americans’ appetite for climate action seems to be moving in the wrong direction. According to the most recent Gallup Polls, conducted in early March, the percentage of Republicans who believe climate change is caused by human activity dropped over the past year, from 40 percent in 2017 to 35 percent this year. Independents dropped even more, from 70 percent to 62 percent. (Democrats increased slightly, from 87 percent to 89 percent.)

As the New York Times noted this weekend, with its nearly-book-length history of the climate crisis and how we could have solved it during the 1980s: "Today, only 42 percent of Republicans know that 'most scientists believe global warming is occurring,' and that percentage is falling."

With opinions on climate change, as with so many other issues, increasingly entrenched and polarized — and, arguably, misinformed — changing minds will be a heavy lift. But if anyone can do it, Madison Avenue can.

Save the buyosphere

Of course, it's not just the environment that suffers from consumers' seemingly endless buying binge, as I've written in the past. For several decades, psychologists, sociologists and other observers of the human condition have discussed and deconstructed the disparity between consumption and happiness. More, it seems, is not necessarily better in terms of engendering security, self-esteem, meaning, personal fulfillment or any of the other Maslowian traits that make for individuals, communities and societies that are healthy, in every sense of the word.

That hasn't been the mindset of marketers and advertisers, with rare exceptions. Only recently, as the tantalizing concept of a circular economy beckons, is the promise of living well, or even better, with less stuff even within view.  But for now, it's mostly a nascent vision of what's possible.

Said Marshall: "Our goal is to bring some of the most creative people on the planet to this issue and come up with crazy, weird, new ideas, test those, and try and launch those. Because we don't have time for the existing messages to continue to not work."

Marshall describes climate change as "the biggest capitalist opportunity we've ever seen" (which jibes nicely with my longtime quip about climate change being "a massive business opportunity masquerading as an environmental problem"). Toward that end, Marshall is hoping that companies will want to partner with Potential Energy to test and deploy messages to better understand what resonates. "We're going to start with segments that we think have high leverage, where we can try and make significant progress and do a significant amount of heavy digital engagement, heavy social engagement and a tremendous amount of measurement."

I'll admit to being a tad dubious about how many minds out there are even changeable, given the current state of discourse in America on this topic. But I'd be pleased to be proven wrong. After all, the fate of the world may hinge on the success of such efforts. No pressure.

So, godspeed to Marshall and his band of mad men and women. There may be no more noble cause than shifting hearts and mind of Americans on climate change — and in particular, those who hold the reins of power in Washington, D.C. Talk about high-leverage opportunities: If we can get just a dozen or so elected officials to shift their thinking — and their voting — on this issue, it could make a world of difference.