What lies beneath – can marketing save the ocean?

I had a fascinating conversation with Oliver Steeds last week. Oliver is Chief Executive and Mission Director of Nekton, an organisation focused on saving the ocean from catastrophic damage. He believes that we have ten years to halt the damage being done before it’s irreversible.

Feb 11, 2022

By Neil Davidson

A marketing challenge sits at the heart of this. This doesn’t diminish the scale and importance of this issue; it recognises that saving the ocean depends on understanding people. So how can a marketing approach help us unpick the challenge of saving the ocean?

Free isn’t always good

Humans judge most things by comparing them to similar things, rather than having an absolute value for anything. (Although that still doesn’t help me understand why people will pay ridiculous amounts for someone to sprinkle salt on a gold-leaf steak via a sweaty elbow.) In reality, the price demanded often determines how much value we place on an object, even when we know there is a vast gap between of the actual cost of that product, service or experience and the price charged.

The challenge for the ocean is that it is free and surrounded by things we pay for (on the beach, by the beach and on the water) so it’s not only placing little value on itself but the comparisons that surround it say that it is of less value.

Never underestimate the power of now

Despite being told that the age of the meta-verse is approaching, we still perceive the world and behave in it in ways that were hard-wired into us when we were hunter-gatherers. Humans still survive and function by both living in the moment and prioritising what’s in front of them. Our time as hunter-gatherers focusing on managing our energy to get the food, water and shelter that particular day are the types of behaviours that have IFAs scratching their heads when they try to get people to invest in pensions and supermarkets wondering why they’ve run out of toilet rolls again. Politicians are also skilful at diverting our eyes from what really matters by pleading to the power of now: why would any rational person focus on potentially illegal Downing Street parties when we are almost at war?

The challenge is that the ocean does not live in our ‘now’ in many ways. Ten years is too far away for most people to focus on versus day-to-day concerns, and many of us in the UK don’t engage with the sea meaningfully despite being an island. (I grew up in a coastal city and often didn’t see the ocean for weeks.) We also can’t see what trawlers are doing to the ocean bed and don’t see the vast quantities of plastic, both visible and invisible. (Think about why a grumpy or smiley face when you drive under 20 mph passing through a village has more effect on you than the threat of points and a fine in the future and you can see the power of now.)

Scarcity value makes us do weird stuff

Scarcity value is a powerful trigger that marketers know how to use. Scarcity makes us humans living under the power of now act, as well as place higher value on scarce items and services. The challenge is that the ocean doesn’t seem scarce at all: it’s 71% of the world’s surface and 95% of it is unexplored.

You might bemoan the lack of beach in Brighton on a sunny bank holiday weekend, but you’d never say that you needed a bit more ocean as well. Fish stocks are under threat but the full shelves in the shops tell us otherwise. We protect scarce resources, scarce species and scarce environments, so we struggle to apply the same thinking to the ocean.

Every marketing challenge starts with asking the right questions about people

It might seem that this perspective highlights the challenges over the solutions, but that’s a crucial step for a marketing approach that changes behaviours: thinking about the actual behaviour we want to change and working through the barriers and comparisons in the minds of the people we want to act. How we get people to act to save the ocean potentially starts with reframing it as something that matters in their lives now, making its actual scarcity value real and potentially even considering whether the ocean should no longer be free to use.