Thursday 29 March 2007

Think global, talk local

Communicating sustainable development. The phrase itself makes it sound like you’re speaking Klingon. You can place it alongside ‘capacity building for community empowerment’ or ‘centres of excellence for best practice’ in the hideous jargon jamjar of obfuscation. 

In short, the words don’t help.

The other challenge for those of us dealing with communications and sustainability is the fact that so many people can feel paralysed by the sheer scale of the issues and problems we’re seeking to tackle. Global warming? Quick, hide beneath the duvet! Species extinction? Heads in the sand, comrades! Deprivation and global poverty? Pass me the remote, it’s time for Dancing on Ice. This is territory that our colleagues at Futerra have explored really well in their ‘Rules of the Game’ for communicating climate change. Creating fear without agency is not a smart move.

If you’re planning a major campaign on something like climate change then one winning strategy for success is to root your creative work in something that the audience can strongly relate to: their own lives and the place where they live. You need to think global but talk local.

We did this when we created the Manchester is my Planet campaign towards the end of 2005 for our clients at Manchester: Knowledge Capital. The phrase itself was conceived to fuse civic pride and a very Mancunian cockiness with the global challenge of climate change. As well as the campaign title, there was a slogan of ‘Save your planet, start with Manchester’ that worked really well. We even drilled further down with the campaign and created more local variants; ‘Trafford is my Planet’ is a campaign by one of the Greater Manchester authorities that is running to this day. We used local celebrities and more than 100 large organisations across the city (transmitters, in the comms jargon) to help reach out to our target population of three million, using local, trusted networks to give our global message added relevance and connectedness. It worked as a strategy, and so far 17,000 people have taken a pledge on climate change across the Manchester city region. I’m particularly chuffed that elements of the campaign strategy have been employed elsewhere in the UK, including for cities like Sheffield and Nottingham.

Another example of ‘think global, talk local’ in the Northwest of England is a campaign called ‘SMYLE’ run by Vale Royal Borough Council. I really like this campaign - which I hasten to add we had no part in professionally. SMYLE stands for ‘Supporting MY Local Environment’ and is strongly grounded in the idea that each and every one of us has the power to make a difference to our local environment, as part of our collective contribution to a better environmental future. Campaign highlights for me have to include the ‘Rubbish Heads’ street theatre (strangely terrifying, could be off Doctor Who) and a campaign video narrated by Derek Griffiths (TV presented and voice of SuperTed... holds a special place in many a thirtysomething’s heart).

SMYLE, alongside Manchester is my Planet, is a great example of a campaign that doesn’t use disconnected, global disaster imagery and unrooted, difficult to contextualise global statistics to try and appeal to someone who happens to be out shopping for spuds or who has just opened an email from a friend. Good campaigns connect to their audiences and take them on a journey; bad campaigns preach to the converted and leave the rest of us stone cold.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

This is not a logo. This is Manchester.

If a city commissions a new logo, crafts a strapline, or launches an advertising campaign then four times out of five you could see it as a cry for help; a civic flare gun being fired into murky international skies. Not so with Manchester.

We’ve been lucky enough to spend the last nine months working with Peter Saville on his brand vision for Manchester: Original Modern. It’s a project Peter has been working on for around three years now and through workshops, media relations and now a new book, we’ve been helping him and Manchester City Council bring the brand vision to life.

The full story can be found in the book we produced for Manchester’s Marketing Partnership entitled the ‘Manchester Edition’, but in short, Manchester is following a different course and its brand development project is not about a quick visit to the logo shop, it is much more about new ways of thinking and about a shared vision and shared values.

These values include creativity, sustainability and the value of communities, making this project a dream fit for Creative Concern.

This development of shared values and a shared vision is how you become your brand. For a place - rather than a product - your brand is what ‘you’re known for’ to borrow a phrase from Peter Saville. It’s probably sacrilegious to cite Ghandi in relation to brand development but here goes - in relation to civil disobedience, Ghandi said that you should ‘be the change’ you wish to bring about in the world and that’s a lesson that cities can learn as they seek to ‘project’ themselves onto the world stage.

Modern cities operate in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. To be relevant in this millennium they have to be known for something; they have to be bold and ambitious in all that they do; they need to take every neighbourhood, every citizen and every enterprise with them; they need actions that project the city into a global media environment that shifts dramatically with the single click of a mouse button; they have to be unabashed and unafraid of chasing dreams such as creating bold new projects or staging major events; and most importantly they need strong, stable leadership that pulls together a city wide partnership that’s singularly focused on working together to make things happen.

Place branding - something we’re increasingly involved in at Creative Concern - is all about the product and the interpretation of that product. It’s about subtleties, about nuances and about storylines. When people get overly obsessed by logos or straplines they’ve lost the essence of what good place branding is all about: you must become the brand you want to be.

Note: Images above are of the Original Modern light installation we created in Manchester's Great Bridgewater Street Tunnel in September 2006.

Monday 19 March 2007

Climate of confusion

When climate scientists wobble on the public stage, their misfired and misjudged statements are quickly seized upon by the flat-earthers who think that global warming can be put down to a combination of natural variation, sunspots and nu-communist gasbaggery.

And so it is with Carl Wuncsh, the MIT professor who was hoodwinked by WAGTV (the clue’s in the name) into taking part in the ‘Great Global Warming Swindle’ on Channel 4.
Plenty of blog-space has been taken up with deconstructions of Martin Durkin’s anti-green polemic, so here it is sufficient to say that Wuncsh now says he was ‘duped’ by the filmmaker into taking part. He’s not a happy camper and his full response can be read alongside a comprehensive analysis of the film on Real Climate’s website.

It doesn’t stop there. This weekend two scientists appeared on stage in Oxford to decry the ‘exaggeration’ by the media of the risks of climate change when it comes to major disasters or ‘sideswipes’ like the turning off of the Gulf Stream. Once you begin to exaggerate the science in either direction the debate gets out of control,' warned Paul Hardaker.

Fair enough, stick to the science: quite right.

The only problem is that the submission of Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier of the Royal Meteorological Society to the switched on and no doubt highly qualified crowd at the Sense About Science conference on Saturday didn’t stay in the seminar room in Oxford. Quite the opposite. It was on the world’s most visited website - BBC News - that afternoon and by yesterday was on blogs and websites all over the world, including those dedicated to undermining international efforts to fight climate change.

Granted, it didn’t hurt that Hardaker and Collier had indulged in a bit of spin themselves and coined the term ‘Hollywoodisation’ to describe the overplaying of climate fears. They clearly intended for their work to have an impact - but did they also intend for their no doubt timely warning to be misused?

So in the Edinburgh Evening News they are recorded as ‘Slamming climate fears’. On ‘’ they are arguing against the predictions of their peers. On ABC news they are warning other scientists not to overplay their hand. If you Google ‘Paul Hardaker’ right now, you’ll see just how quickly and globally word has spread of his Saturday afternoon lecture. It’s the kind of viral messaging that marketeers would give their mouse-button-finger for.

The contributions of Carl Wunsch, Chris Collier and Paul Hardaker were all well-meaning and in a saner world they would be listened to in the kind of balanced, non-partisan way that they no doubt expect from their scientific colleagues or students, but when they get in front of a camera or microphone, they’re playing a different game, and they need to work harder at not being misrepresented. Each of these stories has been read by someone on the cusp of conviction with regard to climate change, and will have helped to have put them off. I’ve already heard of one senior director in a major government agency calling for an explanation in the light of the alarming news that climate change may not be as much of a threat as we thought.

From a small soundbite or moment to camera, so can spread the idea that maybe, just maybe, climate change isn’t such a problem after all. The viewer or reader goes back to their carbon-laden lifestyle; the world moves on, a little warmer and a little less concerned; action on climate change is put off for another day.

Scientists need to know that their words will be used and abused across the world and that they may be responsible for seriously damaging public understanding, no matter how valid their single conjecture or conclusion may be. We are all gagging for a get out on global warming and having leading scientists suggest that it’s all been exaggerated, overplayed or simply made-up is telling us exactly what we want to hear.

Thursday 15 March 2007

Head soup

Communications is becoming harder to track, less predictable, and much, much more personalised. Word of mouth and personal advocacy counts for as much, in some cases, as raw spend on promotions. For issues-based and cultural organisations this is vitally important as issues-based messages have the potential to carry farther and more dramatically than products or services, provided that they are designed effectively.

Barriers to entry and competition for ‘headspace’

In Information Anxiety the author Richard Wurman noted that the average weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a person would be likely to encounter in an entire lifetime in 17th Century England. The works of Shakespeare pale in raw information terms alongside the output of just one global news outlet; whether they represent a greater degree of intelligence is of course another matter.

So how much raw data are we taking in? According to UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems as long ago as 2002, the combined output of print, film and computer data created each year mounts up to around five exabytes of new information.

How much is this? If you digitised the nineteen million books and printed materials in the US Library of Congress you’d get around ten terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in half a million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress.

Per person, this stacks up to a substantial information flow. Given a world population (in 2003) of 6.3 billion, this represents almost 800 MB of recorded information per person each year.
If you wanted to store that information on paper, it would take over nine metres of books.
The volume of information impacting upon individual headspace is dizzying in its scale, but what kind of information are we absorbing and what new forms of data are we seeking out?

It’s time to turn to Google.

For the week ending 9 October, 2006, these were the top ten search terms hammered into Google via keyboards all over the world:  Amish (no doubt due to recent school shooting in the USA); Shanna Moakler (former Miss USA, starring in film with Dennis Quaid); You're beautiful (James Blunt, we thank you); Mark Foley (scandal-hounded Republican caught salaciously emailing boys); Bj's Wholesale (shop); Texas Chainsaw Massacre (gory film); Tatana Kucharova (18 year-old Czech student wins Miss World); Johnny Cash; Hips Don't Lie (by Pop Princess Shakira, featuring the majestic Wyclef Jean); Line Rider (online game).

Edifying? Hardly. It doesn’t get any better if you narrow things down to the UK. Our Google searches in February 2006, for example, were as follows:  1.  National Lottery; 2. 50 Cent; 3. Dictionary (rather highbrow!); 4. Wikipedia; 5. Holidays; 6. Paris Hilton (babe search one of three); 7. Eastenders; 8. Simpsons; 9. Paintball (why? why?); 10. Car Insurance (practical); 11. Train Times (ditto); 12. Cheap Flights; 13. Chantelle (two of three); 14. Katie Price (aka Jordan); 15. Weather.

There it is, our intellectual DNA courtesy of Google. The stuff we’re thinking. Our Head Soup. A few also-ran searches included dogs, Crazy Frog and the Pope. It’s as surreal as it is sobering. We all Google so we’re all culpable. This is not a highbrow snub. We have our work cut out.
A crucial question then for those of us with something more important to communicate than the bust size of Jordan or the nearest paintballing venue, is this: how do we cut through the 800 MB of shopping, boobs and cheap holidays to get our message through to the people that matter, the public?

Chances are it won’t just be an ad and a press release.

Wednesday 14 March 2007

Talking works

Word of mouth? In spite of huge adspend, 53% of moviegoers still rely on personal recommendations. 57% of Palm Pilot owners bought because of personal recommendation (echoed in recent Blackberry growth). 

Palm called this their ‘humble marketing’ with a mantra to ‘under promise and over deliver’. It’s a strategy many of us would do well to adopt.

According to Malcolm Gladwell in the ubiquitous ‘Tipping Point’, the essential rules are that people can ‘hardly hear you’, are skeptical, and are very, very connected. Social networks are incredibly complex - even a network of just 100 people has 4,950 possible linkages. It is still easier to talk than send an email and an increasingly interesting interaction is people combining word of mouth with web-based communications. Drive traffic via people and advocacy.

Importantly, events create buzz, so it is vital to examine this output - what do you want people to talk about post-event and how? Emotion, loyalty and advocacy - these are three key factors to successful word-of-mouth.

Creative Concern learnt this through its climate change pledge campaign for
Manchester is my Planet. This was largely a networked and viral campaign that achieved an audience penetration level of 12% in just two months and accessed a total of 350,000 people through known networks. The campaign accessed a media audience of 4 million - but the conversion rates were much poorer through conventional media than for networks. When the employees of the University of Manchester were emailed saying ‘Hey, let’s all take a pledge and do something about climate change’, there were 200 instant pledges online; when the campaign got a spot on breakfast radio, only 20 pledges were made.