Thursday, 1 September 2011

The cultural branding of Climate Change campaigns?

Brands are not just efficient communication tools
While the business application of new modes of branding have been explored in detail, the cultural and communication implications are perhaps even more significant and yet remain an under researched area.  Branding is no longer the simple art of product differentiation using a pleasant logo or clever product name.  Since the development of the mass media, branding has become a key driver in the process of the globalisation of product development and promotion strategy, but also the communication of ideas, cultural icons and social movements.  With the integration of ICT, low cost multimedia and extensive knowledge networks, the way in which branding has traditionally been used to promote products has been revolutionised, but the strategies that have supported the added value that we as consumers attribute to the products/services can now be extended to a range of cultural activities and identities as though they were commodities.  Likewise, the sophistication of consumers has meant that successful branding strategies depend upon the ability of a brand to resonate with complex, and shifting, cultural values.  The merging of these two tendencies has meant that cultural branding, and the branding of culture, are now interdependent forces in the social mediascape in which contemporary life is represented and performed.
OK, very interesting, but what has this got to do with climate change, energy policy or econometric models assessing policy instruments designed to decarbonise the economy? Well, more than you might think. I am not suggesting that brands like the IPCC, or Cambridge University for that matter, are sufficient to leverage policy agreements or climate change action – the debates on policy are necessarily complex and require the inputs from many different organisations, experts and interest groups, some of which represent strong brands, but others are important irrespective of any image or value their reputation or brand value might have (if any). 

So why is branding even an issue in climate change? The issue is more about the way in which climate change itself is an issue and how campaigns to address climate change or to oppose specific policies can learn from contemporary concepts in branding to communicate their message effectively and transparently.

The response to this suggestion has been mixed; there is the assumption that branding is a strategy used in the commodification and promotion of goods that emphasises trivial differences to charge a premium or outcompete equally valid, or perhaps functionally superior goods and services – branding is about presenting something as better than its rivals by any means necessary, irrespective of the truth of their claims, and more money means better promotion and more profits (within the limits of the law, of course, or not, according to Naomi Klein’s iconic book No Logo).  But this is not an accurate assessment of either branding or promotion, although there is always some truth degree of ruthlessness that some businesses pursue their manipulation through promotion, rather than by producing improved goods and services.

Branding is not just concerned with owning a simple, focused position in the consumer’s mind nor indeed, just a relationship partner creating emotional ties to consumers, nor is contemporary branding limited to guerrilla marketing and creating viral videos.  Contemporary branding is as much about how to resonate with the values of specific social groups and to present the narratives that inform their sense of value as accurately and coherently as possible.

My research with Doug Holt on cultural branding and social campaigns, such as Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History, used this type of framework to assess the success and failure of global cultural campaigns.  The question is why do some global campaigns resonate with so many people and force issues onto the decision making agenda, whereas seemingly equally valid global problems or social campaigns fall flat on their face.  One answer seems to be that relative success occurs because of the ability of the campaigners to promote a specific cultural brand that resonates with specific cohorts able to leverage influence.  With the issue of climate change or emissions reduction or energy policy as (interrelated) global problems requiring specific types of action at the level of policy or behaviour change it will be crucial to analyse the complex ways in which the messages are communicated, the way that the reputations of organisations and individuals change and impact on promotion opportunities or damage a campaign message, the ways key narratives are evoked and invoked to enrol support, the way new media opportunities can provide momentum for a campaign or lose control of the agenda, and similar cultural branding issues are evaluated and implemented, will be crucial if the opportunities of new forms of cultural branding are to be used effectively to address the requirements of an effective global climate change campaign.  Equally they will be important for those who disagree with the need to develop such policies or oppose any measures to cut fossil fuel use.  Perhaps developing an effective understanding of how cultural branding works to communicate complex issues to multiple stakeholders will be the democratisation of campaigning, rather than manipulative lobbying and counter-lobbying, which has caused confusion, apathy and raised suspicion of all sides of the climate change debate.

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