As I write this, the words of Greta Thunberg are reverberating around the world.
Wherever you stand on climate change, I hope everyone can agree hers is a powerful story. A 16-year-old, still a minor, getting up in front of the leaders of the world and clearly giving them a performance review: “You are failing us.” And she did it in English — not her native language.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was 16. And certainly not in Swedish.
I am not trying to convince you about whether she is right or wrong. I am simply trying to tell you that she is. She exists. That just happened. And she illustrates the power and purpose of marketing — to get a conversion.
People Are Lazy and Selfish
And it’s not necessarily bad. I am. You are. We’re lazy, because it’s an evolutionary trait to conserve energy. And when I say we’re selfish, we’re simply hardwired to act in our best interest.
These human characteristics make the job of saving the world really hard.
Most People Don’t Want to Save the World, They Want to Save Themselves
Climate change is a maddeningly complex topic. We’re literally talking about a combination of …
scientific study of the entire planet for thousands of years
+ an entrenched economic system — hardwired for brilliant, innovative change; yet, challenged by factoring in externalities
+ change on an such an epic scale that individual impact is difficult to feel
And … oh look, a Kardashian just did something shocking on social media!
Where were we … oh, yes. How do you get humans to focus intently on such a deep problem that you change behavior when there are so many shiny and more fun options out there?
Well, you tell a better story. Thunberg is what Apple was talking about in its legendary “Think Different” campaign. As the ad states, you can “glorify or vilify them.” The most recent AP story about Thunberg talks about how she was both praised and criticized.
Will Thunberg be the one who helps bend that hockey stick of climate change somewhat downward? It’s unfair to even speculate.
But I can tell you her role. It’s marketing. Marketing has a bad rap sometimes, but that shouldn’t come across in a bad way.
As a Marketer, You Can Save the World
Or destroy it. But let’s stay positive.
Marketing has that all encompassing power to affect human behavior. Thunberg is a person, of course. Let’s respect that. But she’s grown to be something far greater.
She’s become a narrative. A way for people to comprehend climate change and how they can impact it. An easy-to-understand personification of a complex issue. In other words, marketing. From sailing across the ocean to reduce carbon emissions instead of flying to that speech in front of the UN, she has created a compelling brand. Something for people to pull for and choose to act due to her actions.
Marketing can save the world, because it is the marketers who create these stories. The stories that get people to change behavior. To wear Nikes instead of generic shoes. To spend more for an iPhone. To take their valuable time to attend a webinar.
No matter what engineers create or researchers discover or politicians utter, products, services, and ideas only succeed because people choose them.
So marketing has the power to save the world. To make the world a better place. To have more people choose good.
Marketing is ultimately the optimization of perceived value to help influence that choice. Some examples:
Example No. 1: Chilean Sea Bass
I got the idea for this article in a discussion with Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS Institute, while he was preparing this YouTube Live session filled with conversion optimization ideas for viewer-submitted landing pages.
In it, he discusses how marketing essentially created the Chilean Sea Bass.
Marketing can help with environmental issues by making eco-friendly, but previously unpopular, options more popular in the marketplace (although, that can cause other issues).
For example, as Alexander Mayyasi states in the article "The Invention of the Chilean Sea Bass," “Far from unique, the story of the Chilean sea bass represents something of a formula in today’s climate of overfishing: Choose a previously ignored fish, give it a more appealing name, and market it. With a little luck, a fish once tossed back as bycatch will become part of trendy $50 dinners.”
Example No. 2: Strong Passwords
In this Wall Street Journal article, "People Need an Incentive to Use Strong Passwords. We Gave Them One," professor Karen Renaud provides a great example of creating a process-level value proposition for creating a strong password (instead of just telling people they should create one)— the stronger the password is, the longer they can keep it before having to change the password again.
Example No. 3: Brushing Teeth
Why did you brush your teeth this morning?
Let me stop you right there and tell you that you’re wrong. Whatever reason you gave is an attempt to logically explain a societally ingrained habit.
And that habit came into being thanks to headlines and body copy in advertising for Pepsodent made by advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins.
He didn’t just tell consumers they should brush their teeth because it’s the good or right thing to do. He created a value proposition for it by advertising the need to brush teeth to remove a film that builds up on them and “robs teeth of their whiteness.”
Example No. 4: Tesla
Electric cars did not gain much traction until Elon Musk came along. Public perception was that electric vehicles — or EVs, for short — were akin to wearing a hair shirt. Yes, they kept the air we breathe cleaner, but it was a subpar experience.
Elon Musk changed that by leveraging the inherent quickness of EVs and created objects of desire with Tesla. These weren’t three-wheeled, two-seater econoboxes. These were high-end sportscars to be lusted after.
He did it by cultivating an innovative (and larger than life) persona on social media. By creating cars with tech-savvy features, like a car that turns off and door handles that retract when you simply walk away from the car. He also did it with smart branding — you can buy a Tesla Model X with “Insane Mode” or “Ludicrous Mode” acceleration.
In other words, marketing.
And in so doing, he changed the entire arc of the car industry from a group of companies that simply couldn’t get off fossil fuels to an industry that has invested billions in electrification and sees EVs as the auto propulsion of the future.
Example No. 5: Tom Szaky
This story is still in progress, but I flag it up to you as an example that is going on right now. Tom Szaky founded TerraCycle with the idea of increasing recycling — especially for hard-to-recycle items that you couldn’t just set out on the curb.
But he didn’t do it by running ads telling you that recycling is good. He partnered with major brands from Bausch + Lomb to Colgate to Tide to leverage their brands and marketing muscle (i.e. co-op marketing) to get the message out to schools and non-profits, encouraging them to recycle in groups in exchange for donations. (And there is your process-level value prop … in addition to making the world a better place, of course).
Now he’s launching Loop, an e-commerce platform in which you can buy your favorite brands in reusable containers by, again, leveraging what is essentially co-op marketing. This small company is trading on some of the biggest and most valuable brands in the world.
'With Great Power There Must Also Come — Great Responsibility'
The Peter Parker principle. If you are a marketing leader, you have a super power. The power to influence human behavior.
To heal … or to destroy … the world.
Use it wisely.
Daniel Burstein is the Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MECLABS Institute. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience.