(First published in Biodiversity Science, Issue 5, January 2012.)
What if we could sell biodiversity in the same way we sell candy or mobile phones? Marketing is often seen as a driver of ever growing consumerism and unsustainable use of resources. But this link with the commercial sector is only (a small) part of the picture.
Human behaviour is the driver of the largest current threats to biodiversity. Only by behaving responsibly can we aspire to sustainably manage the Earth’s resources. The conservation movement has traditionally relied on the spread of information to communicate its message, but this strategy has largely failed as information alone rarely manages to change behaviour. However, there is a field emerging from disciplines such as psychology and economics, which has in the last few decades amassed a great amount of knowledge about changing human behaviour: marketing.
Marketing is the process by which an organisation creates value for its customers in order to, in return, capture value from them. In the case of commercial marketing, this is often tied to the exchange of a physical product for currency. But it can also involve non-use values such as when an individual donates or volunteers his or her time to help ensure the survival of a species that they will most likely never see. In short, marketing is about creating an exchange where both parties can benefit.
The recognition that marketing principles do not have an inherent bias towards moral or immoral ends has led to the creation of social marketing, which applies the principles first trialled by commercial marketers for the benefit of society. Currently applied mainly in the area of public health, social marketing underlies many of the campaigns promoting smoking cessation or physical exercise, for example.
The conservation movement has been slow to engage with social marketing, which could explain why conservation campaigns often still lack targeted and informed approaches. Two examples of this are the use of the ‘general public’ concept and the ad hoc selection of conservation flagships.
Human populations are too diverse to be effectively targeted by any single campaign. As such it is critical for campaign design that there is an understanding of what different groups (defined according to cultural, socio-economic or even psychographic characteristics) make up any population. This will then allow for specific issues surrounding behaviour change to be addressed for the relevant groups.
By using the overarching ‘general public’ concept many conservation campaigns avoid clearly defining a target audience and attempt a one-size-fits-all approach. This is bound to be ineffective due to the different barriers affecting, and incentives needed to change the behaviour of, different groups within any population.
Regarding conservation flagships, those symbols used as central to conservation (commonly recognised species like the whale, tiger or panda), have been largely selected in an ad hoc fashion, mostly according to their own agenda. However, in order to develop a message that appeals to our chosen target audience, we must tailor it to the audience’s agenda—not to our own. It is therefore essential that we understand the preferences of our target audience before selecting a conservation flagship. Only in this case will the flagship be able to fulfil its function of leveraging support for conservation.
The use of marketing principles offers a pragmatic and data driven approach to identifying and understanding your target audience. Furthermore its foundation in the business environment makes it largely results driven, with an emphasis on evaluation, an area where which other areas such as environmental education often have critical shortcomings. This can make conservation campaigns for behaviour change or fundraising far more accountable and give insight as to what works and what does not, one of the foundations of adaptative management.
The conservation movement can surely count with some of the most passionate advocates of any cause. Nonetheless, in order to address global challenges we will need to go beyond these few individuals to engage society at large. Only then can we truly hope to make a difference.
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