Content Changes Hearts and Minds With Authenticity and Purpose

Here in the U.K., it’s hard to think of a TV show that has had more impact than the BBC’s Blue Planet II. The final episode, broadcast in 2017, delivered an unflinching warning about the impact of human activity on the marine environment and, in particular, the deadly danger posed to wildlife by ubiquitous plastic waste. The show closed with a warning from Sir David Attenborough: “Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had such power to do something about it. The future of humanity and indeed all life on earth depends on us.”

Environmental concerns were already moving up on the U.K.’s public agenda when Blue Planet II was broadcast, but the show—the U.K.’s most-watched of the year—has done more than anything else to galvanize public opinion and change consumer behavior. According to one survey, 88% of people who watched the last episode have subsequently changed their behavior. Supermarkets and cafes have reduced or eliminated plastic packaging, and new legislation is underway.

There’s no doubt that Blue Planet II contained incredibly powerful content: Footage of albatross parents unknowingly feeding deadly plastic to their chicks was just one among many heartbreaking moments. But one wonders what made the message resonate so powerfully, and, more importantly, what has made it translate into real behavioral change?

After the show was broadcast, social media certainly helped to amplify concerns and provided access to local initiatives (such as beach cleans and recycling projects). But there’s no doubt that a great deal of the impact came from Attenborough’s status as a bona fide national treasure who is admired and respected across the U.K. When he speaks, we listen, and we trust his point of view.

Content authenticity in the service of important goals is, clearly, vital. This approach seems to have resonated with the confectionary, food, and pet care company Mars, which announced last year that Michele Oliver, previously Mars’ U.K. marketing head, was to be appointed to the new role of global corporate brand and purpose director. This coincided with the unveiling of a new purpose statement for the company, with the tagline “The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today.”

As a family-owned company, Mars emphasizes that it has “the gift of freedom to think in generations, not quarters, so we can invest in the long-term future of our business, our people and the planet.” In a video made to articulate this purpose, the company highlights varied commitments to take a stand on climate change, sustainably source fish and rice, work to end pet homelessness, and more.

The new approach is readily apparent in the role played by Mars as a founder of the Lion’s Share Fund, a global initiative that asks advertisers to contribute funds to support wildlife conservation and habitats and animal welfare. In a campaign video for the fund, Attenborough explains that images of animals feature in 20% of the ads that consumers see, and nine of the top 10 most popular animals used in ads are either endangered or on the threatened list. The Lion’s Share Fund encourages companies to donate 0.5% of their media spend every time an animal is featured in their advertisements, with the ambition to raise $100 million per year.

As the Mars example demonstrates, making content that hits home and changes behavior is not about any one technology solution. Personalization, analytics, and getting search right all have an important part to play. It’s vital to offer consistent messages across all channels, but it’s also important to sound real—no one will be won over by glib boilerplate statements that lack conviction. Social media can amplify the conversation, but it can’t—on its own—create the groundswell of opinion that really moves the needle on important issues. Trust, authenticity, and consistency are the watchwords; it’s to be hoped that, on these most critical issues, compelling digital content can continue to win over hearts and minds.   

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