How brands can help Earth Day make it through midlife crisis


By Brent Wilson, executive creative director

April 20, 2018 | 5 min read

Sunday, April 22, marks the 48th anniversary of Earth Day. In another two years Earth Day will be eligible for an AARP card. And that imminent milestone got me thinking: Is it time for the event to consider retirement?


At its birth in 1970, Earth Day was full of social activism, a growing movement inspired by the energy of the anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements. It was a fresh idea meant to redirect attention on increasingly apparent ecological challenges facing our planet.

Earth Day’s first years gave rise to a historic list of achievements: the Clean Water Act, the end of DDT pesticide, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and others. As a twenty-year-old, Earth Day grew to travel the world, mobilizing 200 million globally. Ten years after that, Earth Day embraced the web, thousands of environmental groups and reached over 200 million in 183 countries. The rise of Earth Day seemed endless.

As its popularity grew, more and more brands befriended Earth Day. And while the overwhelming majority avoided commercializing it, some used it for greenwashing or—worse—used the day as a sales opportunity. Additionally, the idea of giant corporations promoting purchase as a way to a clean environment was anathema to those who most fervently believed in Earth Day’s mission. Earth Day began losing some of its relevance.

Now as a 48 year-old, Earth Day finds itself middle-aged and in mid-life crisis. Earth Day is now a familiar routine, a little tired and missing of that original movement mentality.

For many, Earth Day has now matured into a white-collar tradition. It’s morphed into a day to honor the planet by an hour of activities and an office lunch. It’s the “other day” that you wear green.

Others have become skeptics, convinced that the whole effort is meaningless, that a moment of individual effort results in such a minor impact as to be insignificant without larger systematic change. And, truth be told, in all these years of Earth Days, we haven’t stopped the trends that led to the invention of the first. But does that mean it’s time for Earth Day to hang up its hat?

I would argue that even though Earth Day is old, the planet needs it now more than ever. So don’t give up on it, just accept that it can’t work as hard as it used to. Brands need to evolve their relationship, pick up the slack and bring their own energy to it. Here’s how:

- Take up the activist banner. Audiences now expect their brands to have an “Earth Day mindset” built in. It starts with determining environmental stands that make the most sense for the brand. Then it’s as straight-forward as committing to doing the right thing. Purposeful actions create stories. Those stories, if told well, reflect positively on the brand, which then draws those audiences into a deeper relationship.

- Take the stands the brand supports and bring them to life in ownable ways. While planting trees is a proud Earth Day tradition, consider activities that the brand has provenance to act on. Keep it fresh. Key in on the emerging trends. Ensure the communications are clear and communicated in compelling and unexpected ways. Create content worth sharing both inside and outside of the company. Provide easy first steps that inspire new behaviors and encourage exploration. Keep the dialogue going — after all, Earth Day activities are only as good as their ability to inspire and captivate imaginations well past the moment.

- Make it measureable, and make sure people are part of it. Earth Day has always been about the power of individual actions. With 80 percent of Americans describing themselves as environmentalists, people are hungry for ways to participate, but they need to see real results. Set a goal, track it, show the effort and the outcomes. Give them an honest and uplifting sense of the contributions they make.

At this point, Earth Day truly is “every day” and it becomes a wonderful, authentic moment celebrating the larger effort. A day that engages your audiences with memorable participation and reaffirms all our commitments to make this a better place.

Brent Wilson is executive creative director of AHA. He tweets @brentsaha


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