Repeating Mistakes at the World Wildlife Fund

In 2015, I assisted a marketing agency who was pitching the World Wildife Fund’s digital marketing business. The WWF had grown in influence. At that time, it touted 5 million supporters, nearly 5,000 staff, and US$1 billion in annual funding. Its mission, ”to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature” was daunting. To get that message across, it deployed a serious communications budget. Ads for it were everywhere and media coverage high.

What I shared with the marketing agency was simply this, I did not care how clever the advertising (and the WWF’s was very clever), the net result suggested that people were awful and should feel extremely guilty. It was analogous to the ubiquitous advertisements featuring sad, malnourished children in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These initially shock and raise some awareness but quickly become preachy, judgemental, and downright depressing.

The WWF was repeating the same mistakes by missing the core idea or insight that helps bring more people in and maintains support. Their messaging needed big doses of hope and tangible evidence of progress. I was very direct. The WWF’s communications demeaned the intellect and cut the heartstrings of the people they were attempting to reach. The organization had forgotten they are in the business of communicating hope and sharing victories. Instead they lectured and chastised while asking for money. The cause was just, the communications had lost its way.

The agency lost the work. They led with my insight and it cost them…for a time. Two years later, the WWF came back and hired them. Over the past few years, the tone and content of communications has significantly changed. Even the mission has undergone a sweeping change, “Our mission is to conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.” Though I find that extremely broad and a bit strained to have impact, the intent is well-placed.

Hope and progress became resident on the organization’s website. Tonality and writing changed right down to individual blogs, “4 rivers and wetlands we love – and cannot afford to lose” and “Exciting new survey shows stable snow leopard population in Mongolia”. The website is actually overwhelming given the remit. The organization wants to save the world, which is laudable, but crushing.

That may relate to its current problem. The messaging has shifted back to lecturing and shame. It is difficult to confirm, but I believe the brand has decentralized its communications to regions and individual countries. In the past year, there is work from Hungary, Latin America, the UK, Denmark, Georgia, India and more. On the website, Ads of the World, these are showcased and betray another fact, there are dozens of agencies assisting the WWF. The organization has taken up a militant stance with the new tagline, Join the Fight for Your World.

Once again, the ads are wonderful. The budgets huge but, so is the mission. The communications come across as, “edgy”. This is deployed in scores of campaigns every year. Campaigns that shoot for more funding to feed the big machine. The WWF has built a treadmill of guilt and shaming that it cannot get off.

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