From ‘big catch’ to ‘national treasure’ how to use a positive brand association to save an endangered species
From man-eater shark to adorable giant panda, the fate of a species can sometimes be inextricably linked to its public image. While flagship species with undeniable charisma and positive perception, such as bald eagle, or orangutan have no difficulty attracting goodwill from sympathizers, many of today’s endangered species are not as fortunate; some are even considered pests and are regularly persecuted. But fortunately, public perception is not permanent and it can be changed drastically with careful planning and effective implementation. If Marvel’s superheroes can make a dramatic comeback from relative anonymity of the early 90s, an endangered species with a brand uplift can also come back from the brink of extinction.
The Irrawaddy dolphin is an oceanic dolphin species, usually found in coastal waters, rivers and inland lakes. A population was found adapted to live in a freshwater environment of Ayeyarwaddy river in Myanmar, from where it got its name. Not only the dolphins are iconic species in Myanmar, they are also designated as a “flagship species” on which some important river conservation laws and policies are based. A protected area was established in 2005 in the upper stretch of Irrawaddy river to protect the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. In particular, this population of Irrawaddy dolphins from Irrawaddy river’s dolphin protected area (DPA) regularly displays “Cooperative Fishing” culture with local fishermen where a pod of dolphins guide fishermen to an area with abundant fish and herd them to increase the catch. Historical records show that this practice has been adopted by both dolphins and fishermen since ancient times and is already included in UNESCO’s tentative list of World Natural Heritage since 2014.
Despite this, the endangered dolphins are still regularly killed by rampant electrofishing cartels operating in the dolphin protected area. In addition, they are also under threat from direct hunting, overfishing, dredging, water population, and ship collisions. Annual census surveys reveal that there are only between 60-80 individuals left and eight were confirmed dead during the last 10 months, arousing an outcry from concerned conservationists and activists. Among them, “Save Irrawaddy Dolphin” online campaign having garnered hundreds of thousands of followers in just a few months’ time, emerged as the strongest opponent in the war against electro-fishing cartels, not by patrolling the dolphin habitat on the ground, but by rebranding the dolphins as “National treasures” on social media. As a recognition for their outstanding effort, activists from the “Nature Advocacy” are featured as “Planet Hero” by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). This is a story about how the campaign was put together to achieve such an impact while the world is under severe social and economic pressure brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drawing a Blueprint
A campaign manifesto is the heart and soul of a campaign as outlined in it are a vision (a future scenario that the campaign aims to bring about), a mission (what the campaign will do to bring about that future), and a strategy (step-by-step implementation plan to complete this mission) of the campaign.
Along with a manifesto, a campaign roadmap is also developed for a detailed plan of each step in the manifesto. Roadmap includes, but not limited to, target audience demography, stakeholders involved, media channels to use, a timeline for all the activities, and metrics for measuring success of the campaign.
Setting a Foundation
Once a clearly defined vision, mission and a manifesto with a carefully planned roadmap to bring about that vision is established, we started laying the foundation of our campaign: our key message to the public. Crafting a message that resonates well with the public is a difficult task. Even public relations experts from well-known companies sometimes find it difficult to create a social media post that appeals to the majority among their brand followers. To achieve a universal appeal, all campaign messages need to have three essential elements: sexy, sticky and stimulating.
How to make a sexy message that attracts attention
Include an unexpected element
Despite recent climate movements and increased interest in environmental problems, wildlife conservation is still an issue that tends to fall on deaf ears. To make our message stick, we need a standout element that draws people attention first. Doing something unexpected, contrary to conventional wisdom or popular beliefs, is the best way to get someone’s attention and pique interest. Fortunately, we found from previous research that our target audience cares so much more about their future and income than the plight of irrawaddy dolphins, especially more so during this time of economic fallout brought about by COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, our core message listed all possible negative consequences that the extinction of dolphins will bring to every member of the public, especially towards our target group. Then, we advocated that the dolphins deserve to be saved not because they are cute but because the Dolphin Protected Area and the national river conservation policy is based on the Irrawaddy dolphins as “Flagship Species” in the ecosystem. They are important not because of their name but because of their role in the ecosystem services, conservation policy making, and ecotourism potential. People need to save them not because they help a handful of fishermen to increase catch but because the same fishermen, when they can’t catch enough fish to support their families, may use excessive preservatives in perishable fishery products, and endanger the health of the general public. By focusing on people, rather than the dolphins, it differentiated itself from the messages posted by other environmental clubs and conservation groups, all of who focused only on dolphins.
Finally, to get more attention and pique curiosity, we presented our campaign tagline as a question, rather than stating the key facts. Predictably, “Are you prepared for a FUTURE without Irrawaddy Dolphins?” created an instant hit among animal lovers, and environmental interest groups who are already familiar with the dolphins’ precarious status but not much about other interconnected issues surrounding the dolphin conservation.
How to make our core message stick
Simple core message
The core message needs to be very simple and understandable to our primary target audience. For us, our main target groups are young adults and university students who are relatively more passionate about environmental issues than older adults. And we would like to urge them to use their voices to advocate the Myanmar government to increase protection for the endangered dolphins and to resume the UNESCO application process. After interviewing some students on their opinion and concerns about irrawaddy dolphins, we found that there is a key word that resonates well with this group: FUTURE. As such, we present our sexy campaign tagline that encapsulates a simple core message: “Are you prepared for a FUTURE without Irrawaddy Dolphins?”
There are two ways for a media campaign to instantly raise credibility: 1) citing experts and authorities, 2) getting endorsements from celebrities and influencers.
How to recruit experts and authorities to your campaign
All the conservation projects are scientific in nature and as such, they will definitely need support from relevant authorities and experts at some point in the campaign. However many experts working at NGOs, or the government projects are bound by code of conduct or confidentiality requirements, specific to their organization. Most will not readily get involved in a media campaign due to the conflict of interest that may exist with their official position. Understanding this, we started with retired experts and government officials who are still interested in contributing to conservation causes but are no longer affiliated with any organizations. Not only retired professionals have a massive personal network that we could tap into, their experience can also help us in many difficult situations that we might find ourselves in during the course of our campaign.
Another type of experts that we targeted are university professors. Not only university professors are in close contact with students and environmental clubs, our main target group, they may have an ongoing field research or have conducted some in the past and thus, can provide valuable data and insights into dolphin behaviour, local customs and beliefs or other interconnected issues. Activists can also be good candidates as they usually have massive personal networks, and established channels to spread their words.
“This grassroot movement has brought the awareness to people from all walks of life in Myanmar that saving endangered irrawaddy dolphins is an urgent matter and everyone is joining in to voice their appeal to save the dolphins. I hope the government officials will heed the public demand and quickly implement practical and effective measures to save the dolphins”, said Maung Muang Oo, program director of a local NGO, Natural Green Alliance.
A word of caution for any inspiring activist here is to avoid politicians or religious figures who have partisan support unless your target audience is their followers.
Choosing the right celebrity for endorsement
A campaign, especially at an incipient stage, will always have a hard time finding an established influencer to endorse it. Even when a celebrity is personally interested, more often than not, his/her brand manager will not recommend it as most conservation campaigns are not universally popular.
Like choosing an expert, knowing the right kind of celebrity will save a lot of time and effort. When choosing a celebrity, the campaign should identify someone whose brand image is least likely to be impacted by the campaign message. In our case, we started with MMA world champion Aung La N Sang, who has a massive fan base among young Myanmar adults. As a professional athlete, his brand equity is more correlated to his performance in the ring rather than what he says on social media; so, his manager is less stringent as the popular star himself was eager to help in the cause as well. Once Aung La N Sang’s post received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from his fanbase, we showcased it as an example to convince other celebrities to join our cause.
“I didn’t know much about Irrawaddy dolphins before but thanks to Nature Advocacy, I learned how important the dolphins are as a flagship species as well as what “cooperative fishing” culture means for the traditional cast-net fishermen and their household. So, I decided to join them and use my skill and fanbase to revive this unique culture” said travel blogger Monn, who is spearheading an initiative to promote ecotourism among the locals.
But one also needs to pay attention to image rights issues and be careful with such uses. Some celebrities’ image rights may be owned by a separate entity. In this case, you will need permission from that entity as well to use his/her image.
Now that we have both experts and celebrities in our corner, we convey our messages through them and their social media network instead of posting as our own opinion. It is also a good practice to occasionally refer back to these posts from experts or celebrities to back up our claims as this will reflect more positively among the readers.
Concerte data to avoid controversy
A conservation project is heavily grounded in scientific research and survey, and without concrete data, our messages will not be able to gain much traction among the public. Sometimes, it may even court controversy. As with any conservation campaign to stop a certain action, people who are committing that particular action will always find counter arguments to discredit the campaign. Hence, we always refer to published literature and press releases from reputable sources. We also took notice that our target audience is not familiar with scientific terminologies and methods. As such, we translate significant findings in vernacular language as well as make a lot of analogies with mundane situations that most people are already familiar with and can readily understand.
How to Stimulate a Response
Our campaign is not merely an awareness campaign to educate people about Irrawaddy dolphins. We aim to instigate a response from the public to share our messages, create their own social media posts, and sign a petition to designate the dolphin’s habitat as a UNESCO heritage site.
Make it Emotional
Emotions are the biggest drivers of action and we used them extensively throughout our campaign. Our campaign tagline “Are you prepared for a future without Irrawaddy dolphins?” induces anxiety among our target audience by reminding them that their futures are also intertwined with that of the dolphins. We also use photos and graphics of dolphins being killed, chopped up, or washed up on shore to create the urgency of the situation as well as cause anger to spark an outrage from the viewers.
However, extremely negative messages and graphics should be avoided as they may turn off people, especially when used occasionally.
Tell a Story
Sometimes, stating a fact or showing a photo is not sufficient to instigate a required action. In this case, we turn to storytelling as a powerful tool to affect emotion and trigger a response. Stories about how Irrawaddy dolphins help the local fishermen through “Cooperative fishing” to increase catch are used to incite goodwill towards the dolphins. How the dolphins, when shocked with electricity when coming closer to the boat, are now turning into strangers and no longer work with the fishermen engender sympathy towards the traditional cast-net fishermen. How electric shock fishers, using the money gained by illegal fishing activities, buy weapons and bribe other villagers to infiltrate patrol teams, and steal patrol routes and schedules make readers angry. Afterwards, these emotions are coupled with a call for action of some sort_ sharing the post on social media, taking a selfie holding a poster, or signing a petition etc. Indeed, the campaign is now collaborating with a well-known environmentalist film director in Myanmar, whose upcoming documentary about a fisherman who lost his ‘cooperative fishing’ livelihood because the dolphins with whom he grew up together are now either dead or running away from boats, in fear of electric shock. Recounting a personal story like this is from someone who experienced the devastation first-hand is a very powerful way of garnering a huge credibility as well.
Building the House
An advocacy campaign is no different from a marketing campaign in that both are calling for an action from an audience to subscribe to the campaigners’ lead. In principle, they are both selling an imaginary of a future that is better than what the audience currently have. For this reason, the chance of success for an advocacy campaign is higher if the campaigners adhere to established marketing principles and systematically establish their brand name.
Branding a conservation campaign
Like a product, or a service, an advocacy campaign can be branded as well. “Save Irrawaddy Dolphin” campaign positioned all the activities online on social media and web to take full advantage of the COVID-19 related lock-downs. The branding elements are made to appeal to savvy smartphone users of younger generations who are the campaign’s main target. With extensive work invested in building clear vision, mission, and manifesto, along with a clear messaging strategy, ‘Save Irrawaddy Dolphin’ brand shows a clear identity with consistent messaging and differentiates itself from other activists, and other NGOs advocating for the dolphins on social media. This consistency and clear positioning helped to attract local press and media and in turn, spread the messages further.
Brand image is defined as the perception of the brand in the minds of its patrons and subscribers. It is imperative for a brand to trigger a positive feeling and response with any interaction with its consumers. “Save Irrawaddy Dolphin” campaign is built entirely on social media and urges everyone to participate in dolphin conservation by using their own personal social media accounts. Instead of just raising awareness, the campaign urges its followers to be personally involved in meaningful activities that directly contribute to dolphin conservation, such as sharing posts, signing petitions, changing profile pictures, drawing pictures etc. Previously, most ordinary citizens felt that saving dolphins is beyond their reach and comprehension. But by letting people involved in generating contents of their own, our campaign sells an ideology that ordinary people can also become campaigners themselves to make an impact in an abstruse and remote subject as dolphin conservation, thereby kindling a feeling of empowerment and ownership in the progress of dolphin conservation.
The most important thing about a conservation campaign is transparency and trustworthiness as there are a wide range of stakeholders involved in the process. Having a clearly defined manifesto and endorsement from experts can go a long way towards achieving a high level of trust among the followers.
“I decided to work with Nature Advocacy as I admired their dedication to bring forth the plight of the Irrawaddy River dolphins to be heard by fellow Myanmar. The team is working with clearly defined goals that are complimented by consultation from a wide selection of subject matter experts. I believe that this will be crucial to build the push for practical solutions that will save these animals from the brink” said Thadoe Wai, a freshwater ecologist, who is serving as an independent advisor for the campaign.
Our initial survey revealed that 1 out of 3 people in Myanmar, even among wealthy, educated, and urban class, does not even know such an animal as irrawaddy dolphins exist in nature. Most don’t even know the dolphins are mammals. Many were wrongly assuming that the irrawaddy dolphin is a fish species and like most farmed fishes, they think a dolphin can be captive-bred and farmed in tanks like a Tilapia with each pair of dolphin yielding thousands of offspring to be sold commercially or shown in aquarium for monetary profit. In short, most Myanmar people view an irrawaddy dolphin as a ‘big catch’ that a fisherman can routinely capture and consume or a source from which economic benefits can be derived.
Fortunately, we found out that the dolphin habitat is already in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2014 and a further application with concrete data can achieve official recognition. By choosing UNESCO official recognition as a campaign goal, ‘Save Irrawaddy Dolphin’ campaign associated the irrawaddy dolphin with an ancient city of Bagan, a renowned UNESCO site in Myanmar. This new perception, along with the uniqueness of “Cooperative Fishing” culture thoroughly changed perception towards irrawaddy dolphins among the public and now they are being glorified as ‘National Treasures’ instead.
The first priority in developing a brand is identifying all the stakeholders groups in connection with the brand, and segment them by their demography and psychology. For us, we have identified the following segments in relation to the dolphin habitat or related to the conservation cause: students, environmental clubs, monks, bird watchers, anglers/game fishers, reforestation groups, conservation NGOs, travel bloggers, government officials, politicians.
Pilot interviews were conducted with a few randomly selected samples from each group to understand their attitude and opinion on Irrawaddy dolphin conservation. Once their views are clearly understood and key concerns were mapped out, each group was targeted with a customized message that relates one of their main agendas to the dolphins. For instance, bird watchers were approached with a prompt, asking for support to UNESCO petition, highlighting the fact that doing so will save endangered shore birds from electric fishing boats as well.
Unlike saving big cats from backyards, or demanding to release captive dolphins from aquariums, electric fishing and saving irrawaddy dolphins is a complex issue with stakeholders ranging from local villagers to politicians; fishing rights auctions to hydroelectric dam projects. As such, the outcome of the campaign depends heavily on how effectively the campaign can engage all the relevant stakeholder groups and account for their concerns. Dolphin campaign must position in a way that is agreeable to all these stakeholder groups to garner their support for maximum reach and effectiveness. For instance, the campaign goal can also be presented as ‘stricter regulations and enforcement for IUU fishing activities’, but it would not appeal to proponents of ecotourism, and some members of the public who are not aware of the detriments of electrofishing would not be convinced to this kind of goal. An overarching goal that aims for a positive outcome, UNESCO designation in particular, covered most of the critical issues, such as tightening regulations, increasing punishments, developing infrastructures for ecotourism. Only such goals would encounter minimal resistance from all stakeholder groups.
Once all the theoretical frameworks are well-established, the final step of the campaign is to create consistent brand elements across all platforms and create a brand identity to our campaign. With consistent messaging throughout, a strong brand identity helps to differentiate our messages from that of other activist groups and projects a sense of reliability and trustworthiness to our followers. As such, they feel less skeptical towards our activity and more likely to respond to our posts.
Colors, tone and script
Using colors and tones effectively in graphical elements is also very important to convey a required tone and stir up emotions of the readers. Materials from our campaign generally fall into two categories: awareness raising and calling for action. Generally, awareness raising materials are paired with an entertaining tone and light, vibrant colours to stir up affectionate feelings whereas a call for action requires a more compelling tone and darker colors. Likewise, light-hearted script type fonts are used for awareness, whereas a heavier, classical typeface that exudes gravita is reserved for a call for action.
Since we have recognized the importance of such design elements earlier in the campaign, we have engaged a design agency as collaborators. A great idea backed by vibrant design elements undoubtedly gave us a lot of credence to our work and helped us gain a significant following faster.
“A resonating design can enhance the presentation and magnify the emotional response to the conservation message. Since conservation news usually tends to be negative, these design elements are particularly useful to tone down excessive negativity in the messaging or magnify it when required. This is because consistently negative messages, especially in cases where most people can contribute little or a quick fix is not possible, may bring despair and indifference in the long run“, said Thiha Zaw, a senior marketing professional who is leading Nature Advocacy’s graphic design team.
Raising funds for a media campaign
Having a well-developed brand identity is undoubtedly helpful in raising funds, whether it be urging for a direct donation or approaching a corporate sponsor for a CSR project. Even though a social media campaign can be run with a very small cost, the campaign still needs funds for on-ground activities. At the very least, a social media campaign still needs, at a minimum, a web domain, a professional website, and email accounts. These costs may add up to thousands of dollars, depending on design elements, web functionality, subscriptions etc. Fortunately, “Save Irrawaddy Dolphins” campaign only needed to spend about $100 to complete the first step in its strategy, awareness raising stage.
As such, a well-thought out fundraising plan is essential before starting a campaign. Fundraising targets must be set beforehand and contingency plans need to be developed for situations where sufficient funds can not be raised or an unexpected situation develops that disrupts fundraising activities.
Some possible ideas include but not limited to:
- Collecting donations
- Proposing CSR initiatives
- Selling own brand merchandises
- Applying grants
- Auctioning artwork
- Adoption plans
- Sport exhibition events
Depending on the nature of the target wildlife/ecosystem and social economic context of the country and culture, these methods can be adapted or further developed creatively to suit these needs. A word of caution here is to develop and announce beforehand, a detailed plan on where and how the collected funds will be utilized and justification for prioritizing on some activities over the others.
Putting it all together
Running a successful campaign is a difficult process. Depending on what the campaign would like to protect, a lot of factors come into play and it can take months or even years to lay the groundwork of a campaign, especially if the organizers are not a well-known organization. External factors, such as changing government policies, PR problems, and other trending issues, can also affect a campaign in unexpected ways. In addition to these, campaigners need to watch out for politics from other NGOs operating in the same conservation space or government reaction, and the campaign opponents, who are exploiting what the campaign seeks to protect, are always looking for an opportunity to discredit the campaign.
Only time will tell whether the Nature Advocacy can collect sufficient signatures to force the government’s hand to resume UNESCO application. Regardless, their efforts have already branded the Irrawaddy dolphins as “National Treasures” in the same standing as the ancient city of “Bagan” and this will doubtless benefit conservation projects in the Dolphin Protected Area for years to come.
Nyein Zaw Ko (eWCC alumni 2020) is the founder of Nature Advocacy and the director of “Save Irrawaddy Dolphin” Campaign. Nyein was inspired with his campaign communication idea from an online lecture about communication by Dr Cedric Tan who directed and taught eWCC (WildCRU, Oxford). Originally graduated as a bio-engineer from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Nyein always had a passion for nature conservation. After extensive experience as a quantitative analyst in consumer research at the Nielsen Company, he entered the conservation field as a freelance eco-tourism researcher, and cooperated with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to protect the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar.
Nyein Zaw Ko (eWCC alumni 2020) is the founder of Nature Advocacy and the director of “Save Irrawaddy Dolphin'' Campaign.