With all due respect, the scientific community might just get the award for “biggest marketing fail ever.”
As of this writing, some parts of the U.S. are suffering wind chills of 77 below zero. Six states are reporting temperatures as low as those at the South Pole. In Chicago, train operators are using fire to keep the trains running. At such cold temperatures, the metal rails shrink, allowing them to pull apart at the connections. When that happens, gas-fed systems that run alongside the rails are used to heat the rails so that they expand and can reconnect.
In conditions like these, even the most die-hard global warming activists (if they’re being honest) can understand all the wisecracks currently making the rounds, including the ones from President Trump:
Even if you thoroughly understand the difference between weather and climate, you’ve got to admit…this situation is almost too tempting to resist.
If only the scientific community had used the term “climate change” from the beginning.
When NASA scientist James E. Hansen used the term “global warming” in his testimony before Congress in 1988, the term stuck, and I believe that’s the main reason we’ve been arguing about it ever since. Back then, nobody but scientists gave much thought to the difference between weather and climate, and weather just presents too many opportunities to refute or even poke fun at “global warming.”
What’s that got to do with marketing?
It’s got everything to do with marketing, because it illustrates how difficult it is to change an association once you’ve successfully established it in your audience’s minds. When scientists realized their mistake and started talking about “climate change” instead of “global warming,” many in the general public saw it as an attempt to avoid saying, “We were wrong.”
What could have been: The marketing of global climate change
What if the scientific community, once they realized that whatever-you-want-to-call-it was a serious threat to humanity, had asked themselves a simple question:
“Who is our audience for this message?”
This was perhaps the biggest mistake of all. The scientists were used to talking to other scientists — people who spoke their own language. They were also used to speaking to the government officials who had control over policy decisions — not to mention funding for grants — and they knew how to speak that language, too. But they completely misread the general public, resulting in Tweets (and other social media posts) like these every time things get a little chilly:
And then there’s this one from Rush:
You can blame it on ignorance, and in some cases, that may be true. But I think there are plenty of folks who believe global warming is real who can’t resist opportunities like those presented by the current images of hell freezing over.
What the scientific community got wrong, and how you can avoid making the same mistake
In my content strategy work, I tell clients that they should be targeting one of two different audiences:
- People who do, regulate, or fund what they do.
- People who buy what they do.
In this case, the scientific community targeted the first group: the legislators who make policy and provide funding. And they nailed it. But they blew it when it came to the second group: people who buy what they do. They greatly underestimated the role the general public must have in reversing climate change and, therefore, didn’t recognize the need to speak to them in a way that would energize them and get them on board.
Or perhaps they suffered from the curse of knowledge and therefore overestimated the public’s knowledge level and assumed that everyone knew a cold snap doesn’t mean global warming is fake. Either way, it was a near-fatal marketing mistake.
Conclusion: Your marketing team needs a devil’s advocate
It probably never occurred to the scientists who introduced the term “global warming” that they were engaged in marketing, but they were. And, unfortunately, they did it all too well. The term “global warming” is firmly lodged in the public’s collective vocabulary, and it’s proving impossible to pry out. That’s why you get memes like these whenever unusually harsh winter weather strikes:
If only they had had a devil’s advocate. The role of devil’s advocate, naysayer, and hole-poker has always come naturally to me, so I was surprised, as an adult, to discover that not everyone does this. In fact, many find it quite irritating — but the business world needs more people who do it.
Try to think of all the things that could go wrong — especially how consumers could misinterpret (or, even worse, mock) your company’s branding initiatives. Remember who your audience is, and resist the temptation to assume they’ll automatically understand what you think is obvious — in this particular scenario, the difference between global warming and climate change. Or that several years of extremely cold weather doesn’t mean that the overall global climate isn’t warming.
Finally, don’t just go along with the crowd. Be brave enough to play devil’s advocate when needed. Be the one to steer your company away from a branding catastrophe when everyone else is rushing headlong toward it.
Need help with your content, whether strategy or writing? I’d love to help! Just email me at email@example.com, and I’ll get in touch as quickly as I can.