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Climate change needs a rebrand
Marketing professor and climate advocate John Marshall on how to talk about climate change more effectively
“I don't think the concept of fighting climate change means that much to people. People don't really understand it that well. I think the right rebrand is to fight the pollution that's causing climate change. … That's a very identifiable thing in somebody's mind. But it's really hard to fight an abstract concept that most people think is caused by recycling and plastics and ozone holes.”
In a 2021 report from Yale, less than a quarter of Americans describe themselves as knowing a lot about climate change. That might be because, as John Marshall says, climate change has a branding problem. A professor of marketing at Dartmouth and the CEO of the nonprofit group Potential Energy Coalition, John is working to improve education and messaging around climate change. Applying a marketing mentality to the current climate narrative, he gives suggestions for how we can better communicate about it for more meaningful action.
You can catch the complete episode (50 minutes) on Spotify.
Climate change has a branding problem. What do you think of when you hear the phrase “climate change”? John points out that it’s a pretty abstract concept, so what it means to “fight” it isn’t very intuitive. Nebulous terms like “net zero” and “decarbonization” also don’t help. Only those who are highly educated on the matter—or the “climate elite,” as John calls them—actually understand them.
To get more people to care about climate change, John suggests reframing it as a fight against pollution and people who pollute. Compared to climate change, pollution is a more specific and identifiable concept.
Besides branding and messaging, there’s also a communication gap. The cost of solar energy has dropped by 85% over the past decade—yet research shows that the majority of people still believe that clean energy is an expensive luxury. John points to this as an example of the communication gap concerning climate change: people just aren’t well-informed about it.
“We have a message dissemination opportunity in front of us that we really need to take advantage of,” John says. Climate education has a promisingly high ROI. Data from 13 large-scale experiments show it costs anywhere from $6.80 to $12.70 to convert someone into a climate supporter.
How can we improve climate messaging? By following three tenets: simplicity, humanity, and accountability. John explains each in more detail.
Simplicity: Use regular speak, not jargon. For example, John suggests thinking about how you’d explain something to your neighbor. This language is how we should approach climate education.
Humanity: Connect your message to a person and how they’re affected. In an A/B test on messaging, a mom talking about the importance of fighting climate change for her kid outperformed a group of climate philanthropists speaking about the cause.
Accountability: Communicate the source of the problem and how to address it. John relates this tenet back to the need for a rebrand. Since climate change is hard to conceptualize, try narrowing in on a more concrete piece of it, like pollution.
Describe climate change’s consequences in just six words. A few examples: Climate change is causing extreme fires. Climate change is increasing food prices. Climate change is raising electricity bills. Besides helping simplify messaging, John suggests doing this exercise to make the consequences of climate change more relevant and tangible.
Think benefits, not features. This tip comes straight from marketing. It’s the idea that simply describing a product feature (something a product does) doesn’t mean as much as its benefit—how the product helps the customer. Applied to climate education, this thinking also makes for more effective messaging. John talks about an experiment in Florida where a message to “stop flooding” was four times more effective at getting attention than “demand zero emissions to stop climate change.”
One night in February, temperatures in Houston dropped into the teens—well below the month’s 48°F average low. Stepping outside the next morning, I remember marveling with my husband at the surreal image of snow on our front steps.
Though I’d seen snow before in Houston, it’d always topped off at a light dusting, gone within a few hours of falling. This wasn’t the case. The snow lingered for days—and so did the frigid temperatures.
Our home lost power. So we bundled up inside and emptied the contents of our fridge on our outdoor patio, where they’d avoid spoiling. We slept on a mattress under our dining table, with blankets thrown over the tabletop to trap in warmth. And at night, we used camping lanterns before eventually deciding to just go to bed and hope that the electricity would return with the sun.
Fast-forward more than two years to this June—and what feels like an endless string of heat advisories and warnings. Houston may not have a reputation for pleasant summers, but this suffocating heat, a kind of heat that makes you feel tired and heavy, is a new extreme.
Abstract as it may be, the reality of climate change is deeply unsettling to me. What’s even more paralyzing is the feeling of helplessness in stopping it. Hearing John speak about climate messaging doesn’t fix this—but it gives me hope for how average people like me can talk about climate change in a more meaningful and productive way.
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