The “climate change” debate is one of the hottest issues in America, usually pitting one side against the other, with no room for common ground. The rising popularity of sustainability initiatives and advancements in energy technologies could cause even further division, as there is a lot of disagreement when it comes to the climate conversation.
But the data show
s that Americans actually do agree on some things — in our most recent Heart+Mind Pulse survey in February 2023, we found that 2 in 3 Americans want a balanced energy approach of investing in zero emission technologies while also working to improve and reduce emissions from current fossil fuel energies. Renewables top the list of sources to expand, however, most do not believe that fossil energy sources should be phased out completely. Seventy-two percent (72%) of Americans also agree that it’s important for the U.S. to be energy independent.
We think alike on this issue, more than it may seem — but it’s important for brands, businesses, and leaders to look for common ground and to frame their messaging in a way that will resonate and motivate consumers and policymakers.
We met with Michelle Thatcher, CEO + Co-Founder of U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce; Bill Shireman, President + Founder of Future 500; Zabrae Valentine, Principal at Public Good Group; and Brian Mistrot, President at One Nation Movement, to talk about finding common ground, crafting key messages to motivate behavioral change in consumers, and how to talk about all these topics in an authentic way that won’t cause further division. We also worked with our live audience on how to connect and find common ground among differing perspectives — and diagnosing what that means for effective messaging.
What do Americans actually want when it comes to creating energy policies and fighting climate change?
The data says that the majority of Americans actually prefer a balanced, blended approach of old and new energy sources and common ground policies. Bill Shireman, President + Founder of Future 500, explained that part of the problem is the media industry. As we scroll through social media and news headlines, there’s a tendency to get stuck in our own echo chambers and never hear differing perspectives — but a lot of common ground can be found in venturing outside our own bubble and entertaining different opinions, when people come together to listen and engage practically on the issues.
“I think it’s largely a product of our media industry and business model, and the fact that it keeps us all jumping constantly from sound bite to sound bite,” Shireman said. “Americans have very little opportunity to really delve into these issues and discuss them…Once the left and the right have the opportunity to actually engage with one another on the issues, both their opinions change. They tend to move from sound bites that they’ve heard in their media to a more fact-based stance.”
Shireman also lamented the fact that in our current political media system, extremes dominate the conversation, even though the vast majority of people are not extremists. Seventy percent (70%) of the public, on both sides of the aisle, support pragmatic climate solutions that work.
“We have a political system where the extremes dominate the conversation,” Shireman said. “I don’t think that they would be in denial nearly so much if the solutions that were offered were more realistic and founded in pragmatism — and that’s where 70% of the public is…If we had an authentic democracy where those folks held sway, we would have dealt with climate a generation or two ago. But unfortunately, we have a political media industry that thrives by perpetuating the controversy rather than solving it.”
How can brands create climate messaging that motivates consumers?
Brands have a unique platform when it comes to sustainability and climate initiatives. Retail and consumer brand companies can drive positive change through the marketplace without laws, which means they can have significant positive impact in connecting with customers on climate change motivation.
“Oil and gas companies are tremendous in this area,” Shireman said. “You’d think they’re going to be the opponents, but actually they have thought through this longer than most of the rest of us, and they’ve got both technologies and economic incentives that they support that most environmentalists support. But in order for other companies to step forward, environmentalists need to stand with them to support…We need to both improve and fully innovate, and companies need to be there, but activists need to support the companies in order for them to be effective.”
However, if brands are going to craft strategies and communications to reach their consumers, they need to do it in a way that resonates with the audience. Using the wrong framework can cause more damage and further the divide. Even just the phrase “climate change,” which can have harmful negative connotation, can be enough to further the divide between specific audiences.
Michelle Thatcher, CEO + Co-Founder of U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce, gave an example of a partner that they had worked with for years. A Fortune 500 company went to a climate conference and made a big commitment for sustainability. When this partner then came into the United States, they sent an email to their existing SME businesses talking about the commitments and plans they had made in order to combat climate change — but use of the phrase “climate change” caused almost half of their audience to immediately ignore the conversation.
“It went to every single one of their SMEs that they work with, and of the ones who opened up that email, 48% unsubscribed,” Thatcher said. “It’s a huge wakeup call…It’s about making sure…how are we selling this? We’re selling a beautiful climate.”
Brian Mistrot, President at One Nation Movement, says the two different ideologies on either side of the issue are approaching climate change in two completely different ways — so it’s important to tailor your messaging to the audience you want to reach, which will most likely be people on the right side of the political spectrum.
“It’s so important to understand that we have to message different people differently,” Mistrot said. “If you’re messaging to the left, I would think that your message would want to be getting them activated, because 90% of them already believe in climate change. You can use words like climate change when you’re talking to them. But the path forward with the right is taking the two words, ‘climate change,’ completely out of your vocabulary, and focus on economic issues.”
For the right, using communications that instead focus on creating jobs, boosting the economy, and growing America’s energy independence is the better path into getting their attention and motivating action. Zabrae Valentine, Principal at Public Good Group, also noted the importance of communicating with your audience in the right way, saying that most people support expanding clean energy or investing in new technologies, but affordability is top of mind, as many consumers are worried that expanding and using renewable energies would cost them money that they don’t have.
“They’re supporting options that are affordable, accessible, and reliable,” Valentine said. “They want to be technologically inclusive. If something has the potential to reduce or remove greenhouse gases safely and affordably, do it. They want to invest in innovation…it’s not about solar, wind, nuclear — it’s about solving the problem, but don’t forget, I have to be able to pay for it. That’s the kind of framing that I think really brings people together and resonates with them.”
It takes the right messaging to create positive, meaningful change in the hearts and minds of your consumers. While it can be easy to get stuck in a pessimistic view, Bill Shireman reinforced the need for approaching climate change initiatives with optimism.
“If we get through those threats, I think our lives will be radically better than they are right now,” Shireman said. “There is an optimistic place forward and we have to have some faith that we’re going to get there, and that’s something that we need more of…We need to join hearts and minds, and that means bringing together that vast middle of the population that has been silenced and disempowered in electoral politics and decision making…We’re going to win them by connecting with their hearts and connecting their hearts together.”
4 Tips for Brands on How to Create Impactful Messaging:
- Quit doing the same thing and expecting different results — use the correct messaging.
- Keep it inspirational — it’s exciting to be part of this new economy. It’s not scary, it’s exciting and it’s fun and the people who are part of it are really fully engaged.
- Figure out how to be impactful, with actions — walk the walk, instead of just talking about what you’re doing. Lead with the facts. Do the right thing, describe what you’re doing in a way that creates jobs, reduces prices, makes things more affordable if possible, and gives people more options. Consumers would like to know that you’re doing this in a way that is responsible for all of our kids and future generations.
- Remember that this energy transition is going to be very different from how we imagine it to be, because it is a fundamental transition.