What's In a Name? With Climate Change, We'll Still Feel the Heat

Does the environmental movement need to market a "little green pill"?

Grist brought up a fascinating question today in the post Naming the climate disaster. Gar Lipow writes, "After all, denier blather about a new ice age also describes a (discredited) type of climate change," but says that "global warming" describes only one facet of the harm we're doing to the earth and invites skeptics to point out every snowy day as proof that the planet isn't in distress.

My first reaction was to think..."are we talking about 'branding' a disaster? And why does that strike me as strange?" Then I thought about the steps taken by New York City to raise awareness of psychiatric symptoms in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and remembered that branding is just creating a recognizable entity that people can begin to converse about and ultimately to deal with. Imagine if all those folks touched by the tragedy thought they were all alone in experiencing variations on September 11th trauma?

Beyond disaster branding, a well-recognized phenomenon is "condition branding" coming up with a marketing approach to educate and position a given condition in the minds of both prescribers and patients. While any public health awareness campaign can be said to have a component of "branding" (efforts to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis come to mind), condition branding is often used to denote the creation or exaggeration of a disorder (like Seasonal Affective Disorder) for the purpose of selling pills.

As someone with years of experience as a patient advocate in the health care world, I am not sympathizing with those who assert that drug companies and advertisements create most of the ailments that plague humankind. Instead, I think using some of the strategies from the healthcare field might help the environmental movement: using branding to create an evocative image of something with invisible, slowly-accumulating, but nevertheless deadly effects.

Take this skeptic's view of how such conditions as Seasonal Affective Disorder and GERD entered the lexicon: The Art of Branding a Condition by Vince Parry, published in Medical Marketing and Media. Mr. Perry identifies "three principal strategies for fostering the creation of a condition and aligning it with a product:

  1. "elevating the importance of an existing condition

  2. redefining an existing condition to reduce a stigma

  3. developing a new condition to build recognition for an unmet market need."

While polls are showing that concern about global warming is slipping from people's minds since the economy began foundering, I think the green movement has done a pretty good job with number 1. (The very use of a color to represent the movement recalls the "little purple pill" strategy used by stomach medicine marketers, to great success). How could we follow the example of IBS or ED-treatment marketers and take a formerly shameful condition--let's say, not recyling (because you don't understand the laws in your community?)--and attack it with a more sympathetic approach? Number three seems like the province of conspiracy theorists, but we could take it to mean that an as-yet-undetermined new term for global warming, a new image or concept, could be created to reach the hearts, minds, and actions, of the less environmentally-active.

Also thought-provoking were a set of questions for those seeking a marketing strategy for a condition.

  1. "Does your product impact a disease in a unique way - via a new pathway, at a new site of action, addressing an underlying cause versus relieving symptoms - that would benefit from redefining the disease to highlight the difference?

  2. Are there stigmas/social concerns associated with the condition your product treats that would hinder a physician/patient dialogue

  3. Does your product have significant benefits for a condition with little or no awareness?

  4. Are there competitive efforts to niche your product as only beneficial for a condition that is not perceived to be an important health risk?

  5. Are you seeking a niche within a crowded therapeutic category?"

Of course, the problem is that sooner or later health does affect one's self-interest, whereas making a connection between individual and collective (or planetary) wellbeing is the very crux of the problem that the environmental movement faces. And without the benefit of a slick ad campaign, it wil be hard to get "the little green pill" on the lips of an active audience the way those purple pills activated a multi-million-dollar market of consumers exposed to a television, radio, or the side of a bus in 2003. Still, though, it might not hurt to look to branding successes in other fields for help in publicizing the diseases of our planet.

Tags: Advertising, Green movement, Marketing

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