by Archana Balakrishnan, MBA ’16
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Glenn Prickett, Chief External Affairs Officer of The Nature Conservancy, in an EDGE Seminar on Apr. 8, 2015 at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or The Nature Conservancy.
On April 8, Glenn Prickett, Chief External Affairs Officer of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), spoke passionately to graduate students in the EDGE Seminar about TNC’s efforts to approach conservation based on the value of nature’s services to society. In this business model (which is relatively new for TNC), TNC has been partnering with major corporations to quantify the value of ecosystems to businesses and then protect natural resources in service to those corporations.
As I listened to Glenn, I had to wonder: has TNC got its marketing strategy all wrong?
Firstly, there is a clear misalignment between TNC’s strategic objectives and their ambitious venture to quantify the economic value of ecosystems to businesses. Let us consider TNC’s partnership with the agriculture giant Cargill, which claims to have reduced deforestation in Brazil while simultaneously increasing soybean production. What has actually happened is that the eye of the tornado has shifted from one part of Brazil to another.
The Cargill website quotes Carolos Klink, Deputy Minister of the Environment in Brazil as saying the project has contributed to “the design of government systems that have been successful in lowering deforestation rates in the Amazon.” But this has come at the expense of redirecting soy cultivation to land outside the Amazon. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported in Jan 2015, that while soy-linked deforestation diminished in the Amazon biome, 20 percent of new soy areas created in the Cerrado over the same period directly led to deforestation. The study also found that government enforcement efforts capture only between 15 and 50 percent of illegal, large-scale deforestation. “Conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends” is TNC’s mission statement. However, TNC’s positioning as a B2B consulting firm has actually worsened the problem and created conservation issues elsewhere.
Secondly, even if we accept TNC’s value proposition at face value, we cannot ignore the fact that it is built on capabilities that currently do not exist at TNC. Marketing is all about selecting the right target and delivering unique value with superior organizational capabilities. By targeting businesses, TNC has chosen a target audience that primarily cares about bottom-line impacts. While the approach is definitely novel, the fact remains that TNC is still an organization of scientists (there are currently 600 of them serving over 35 countries). And considering that multiple projects are in the research and pilot stage, there is a real risk of the value proposition completely disintegrating over time. As TNC pitches green infrastructure to businesses, the risk is that businesses will drop off if the promised cost savings are not achieved or they encounter backlash from local communities and environmental activists (for example, modifying the ecosystem dynamics by restoring wetlands for wastewater treatment).
Better approach: Mobilize the market through marketing
Instead, TNC should mobilize the marketplace – building social engagement through authentic marketing. The power of the marketplace is reflective in the rise of brands such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s as symbolic of the consumers’ voices against GMOs. Much of the same dynamics are at play in the conservation of nature as well. People have an emotional connection to nature. When Greenpeace’s report linking McDonald’s chicken nuggets to deforestation in the Amazon surfaced, consumers’ sentiments and actions forced the large corporation to respond. TNC should devise their marketing strategy to complement their organizational strategy and target partners and groups who truly share their mission of conservation. They should also continue working on building brand awareness with campaigns such as the Recycle for Nature partnership with PepsiCo to reach aided awareness levels of peers such as the World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace.
The Nature Conservancy is the largest environmental non-governmental organization in the world. In their 64-year history, they’ve saved over 120 million acres of land and built credibility as conservationists. While some may deem TNC’s new route as practical, their recent actions are in stark contrast not only to their core mission but also to the brand image they’ve built over decades. By positioning themselves as business consultants they are discarding the wealth of market trust that they’ve built over time and diluting their brand image. Instead, TNC should work on mobilizing a marketplace that has an emotional connection to nature with an authentic marketing strategy to truly achieve their mission of conserving nature.