Is Rebranding the Key to Solving Climate Change?

Dave Johnson

NASA operates a website that serves, sort of, as a climate change dashboard. The average global temperature is up 1.9 degrees since 1880, for example. The world is losing approximately 413 billion tons of ice sheet per year. Sea levels are rising 3.3 millimeters a year. Alongside articles, solution theories, and other resources, the consistently updated climate change realities are jarring—but why isn’t the information causing consumers to change their behaviors?

Some think the issue might come down to branding. In May 2019, the United Kingdom-based news outlet, The Guardian announced it had updated its style guide to refer to climate change as a climate emergency or climate crisis rather than the more moderate sounding climate change.

It’s perhaps understandable that a news organization feels the need for an evolving language to describe climate change, which is itself an evolving environmental issue, to more accurately reflect the precariousness of the situation for planet Earth. And it is part of a broader tapestry of voices interested in rebranding the phenomenon and movement. “Increasingly, climate scientists and organizations … (are) using stronger language to describe the situation we’re in,” editor-in-chief of The Guardian Katharine Viner said in an article covering the style guide updates.

But is rebranding the right strategic move to spur action to combat the issue?

Climate change has already had one major rebranding. “The evolution from global warming to climate change signified that temperature rise is not the only issue in play. It stuck and has helped a great many companies see climate change as the multifaceted issue that it is,” says Nardia Haigh, a climate change strategist and author of “Scenario Planning for Climate Change.”

Climate change would also be far from the first rebranding effort in the history of modern marketing. We’re inundated with people, organizations, and social movements that have tried to reframe the conversation with a new look, a new taste, or a new name, but not always with great success. Coca-Cola introduced New Coke in April 1985 simply as “Coke.” In 1992, it was renamed Coke II, but even that couldn’t save it. In July 2002, it was officially discontinued. Likewise, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol that resembled a sexualized ankh in 1993, and his new name lasted as long as New Coke’s initial reign as Coke—seven years.

Josh Garrett is the vice president of client services at Antenna Group, a marketing and public relations firm representing green businesses working to mitigate climate change. He is leading an effort to adopt climate crisis terminology within his company. He points to the almost forgotten ozone hole crisis as an example of a successful rebranding. “It was successfully rebranded from an environmental crisis to a health threat,” he says. “Once people heard that the ozone hole means more skin cancer, they started paying attention and taking action.” Garrett contends the resulting consumer pressure was integral to the creation of the Montreal Protocol, a landmark treaty that phased out production of numerous substances (such as chlorofluorocarbon), which were responsible for depleting the ozone layer. “That international agreement was widely hailed as the most effective environmental policy in history,” he says. Data shows the ozone hole has steadily shrunk since the protocol was finalized in 1987.

Based on that example, one might conclude using scary language can be effective, and data research firm Spark Neuro might agree. In a case study, Spark Neuro found the term climate crisis generated a 60 percent stronger emotional response with Democrats and a stunning 300 percent more intense emotional response with Republicans.

In the test, 120 subjects (self-identified Republicans, Democrats, and independents living in the New York area) were hooked to sensors tracking a variety of signals, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and galvanic skin response (GSR), facial expressions, and eye tracking. They then measured physical reactions to climate terminology that was read aloud, both on its own and in the context of sentences like “sea levels will rise dramatically to the point that coastal cities will be submerged.”

The results are intriguing, but of course it’s impossible to know if this emotional intensity would translate into real activity to stop climate change. Karen Tibbals, a marketing strategist and author of “Marketing Landmines: The Next Generation of Emotional Branding,” is doubtful rebranding can change attitudes and actions, and instead points to a lesson from a recent social transformation in the United States: public attitudes about homosexuality and same sex marriage.

A generation ago, Americans were strongly divided on the issue of gay rights. According to NPR data, in 1988, a staggering 77 percent of Americans believed gay sex was always wrong. That number fell below 50 percent by 2007, and by 2015, the last year for which data is available, that number had fallen to 40 percent. The change was unexpectedly sudden and almost without precedent. For evidence of how thoroughly the American public had changed its attitude about gay rights, when the Supreme Court ruled the 14th Amendment granted the right to same sex marriage, there was far less public outrage than some might have expected. Gay marriage rights had mainstreamed in the span of about 30 years.

So how did views change so quickly? In part, activists changed the conversation to be about marriage equality. “Perhaps unknowingly, they used a special form of rebranding that I call reframing, says Tibbals. “Reframing works when it uses the ethical zones that are active in the group of people you are trying to persuade.” In other words, reframing the marriage debate helped the straight community see the gay community as more ethically similar, and thus more relatable.

Tibbals explains there are other ethical zones that can be applied to different issues, including the environment. The so-called sacredness zone, for example, can resonate with religious and conservative demographics by driving at the point that treating the earth as sacred is consistent with religious teachings. “Brigham Young University has recently utilized the sacredness ethical zone in an attempt to get support among conservatives for recycling. The 34-year-old Don’t Mess with Texas campaign has successfully turned around littering in Texas by using a different ethical zone—belonging,” Tibbals says.

So can rebranding climate change build support among demographics who have not traditionally responded to this issue? Tibbals is not optimistic. “Rebranding in this way won’t have much of an effect; this is rebranding but is not reframing. It’s an attempt to create urgency, which may work among the people who already believe in climate change. However, it doesn’t do anything for those who don’t because it doesn’t use an ethical zone that is active in them.”

When it comes to the right way to market climate change, the jury is still out. Rebranding to more urgent “crisis” language will raise awareness, to be sure. But journalists, activists, and government agencies might do well to tread carefully, lest this issue someday be known as “The Environmental Issue Formerly Known as the Climate Crisis.”