Know your audience: watermelon or c’onservative?

Tanya Wilkins, UKCIP

In the majority of mainstream communication thinking, ‘know your audience’ is repeated ad nauseam, almost as a mantra. My recent attendance at a climate change masterclass with @climategeorge from Climate Outreach, left me with the sense that, as communicators, we had forgotten our own discipline.

I was reminded in no uncertain terms that it is not about using language that resonates with the ‘watermelons’, rather that we need to understand the values of the majority centre-right population who need mobilisation to take action against the impacts of a changing climate.

Okay, so firstly … I suspect you’re asking ‘what is a watermelon?’

I wasn’t aware of this term, but it refers to a greenie on the outside with an inner red just screaming to come out. Humorous? Yes … but it’s a barrier in contemporary climate change communication.

And c’onservative? Let me explain that too – it is a new word, invented by Mr Marshall himself to explain the centre-right who have conservative values but do not necessarily vote for the Conservative party.

So now down to the very necessary understanding of a values-based approach to communicating with this large proportion of the constituency.

In the facts and figures that George threw at us during the intensive masterclass, it became apparent that a large portion of those who sit amongst the ‘middle’ of the charts actually know that something is up with the climate, but lack a conviction in the science. In creating long-term social and political change to positively impact on the planet, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on reaching c’onservative values.

And what are these values? The research into these shows far less emphasis on the ‘big business’ that is often attributed to c’onservative folk. Instead, there exists a very strong narrative around aspirations of enjoyment and happiness, of people making a go of it themselves, standing on their own two feet, of consistency and respect for authority.

In considering this against previous climate change communication, with images of stranded polar bears, cracked earth surfaces and children telling the adults off, you can perhaps start to see that the climate change community haven’t really understood their audience at all.

With c’onservatives generally being sceptical of grand theories and ideologies, using the polar bears and big statements about intergenerational equity just misses the mark … time and time again.

Part of the problem with climate change (as outlined in George Marshall’s fabulous book Don’t even think about it – which he personally signed for me!) is that it is a ‘wicked problem’. It hits on so many cognitive struggles that we have as humans; invisible, slow-moving, and without a defined enemy. It has become everyone’s individual responsibility through our rates of consumption, but it hasn’t been communicated in a way that creates a conviction in everyone.

Words like ‘environment’, ‘eco’, ‘planet’, ‘green’, ‘justice’ have been used in campaigns … but the research says no, no, no and no to all of these reaching the c’onservatives.

So what are some of the values that can be used in future campaigns? If you are looking at a broad climate change campaign, then consider using ‘the changing climate’, which is a much less polluted word (excuse the pun). Consider the health and wellbeing impacts of taking action to reduce our use of fossil fuels, to protect the beautiful things that we love – including our family and the landscape around us. It is important to establish synergies between the natural environment that sustained this country during the industrial revolution, and the natural resources that we are still so rich in to enable us to meet these new challenges.

When looking at a more specific subject like energy efficiency, then avoid making it about the cost, rather consider a more traditional approach of ‘don’t be wasteful’, with emphasis on the common sense of not using what isn’t needed, of what can be done for the family and home if money is saved on energy.

A campaign that captured the essence of c’onservative communication was the Mastercard ‘Priceless’ campaign: it attributed values of family, of enjoyment, happiness and conscientiousness in the space of a short advertising campaign.

A final word on what struck me about communicating to this audience was how wrong you can be in assuming values to be important when in fact they are not. Our teachers always said in class “the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask;” this rings true in communication as well, so find out about who you are communicating to, test your assumptions with them, and find out what does work!

  • Cost of a marketing flyer: £50
  • Research into your audience: £1000
  • Establishing a shared and ongoing approach for tackling climate change: PRICELESS

Watermelon man

Posted: 13 May 2016

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