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The Oregonian
October 2, 2003
By Michelle Cole

Brainstorm spawns the birth of Salmon Nation

Portland-based Ecotrust hopes the campaign will sell a new way of thinking about the environment

Upstairs in Wieden + Kennedy's Portland advertising offices, Spencer Beebe finishes what he calls his "half-hour elevator speech." It's about the complexities of saving salmon and preserving forests while building a healthy economy — ideas long-discussed within the conservation community. But Beebe is in trouble: His audience isn't tracking. Not even Dan Wieden, whose agency created award-winning campaigns for Nike, Coca Cola and others. Wieden finally breaks in: "I'm just a simple ad guy. So you have to speak sort of monosyllabically and slowly." Then, nearby, he spots a bright red book with a catchy title: "Salmon Nation."

Bing. That's something an ad guy can work with. Now, two years later, Salmon Nation is born: As a brand. Like Nike, like "Just Do It." The difference: Salmon Nation is designed to sell a new way of thinking about the environment. It is designed to simplify, to mobilize — to commodify what has for so long been a big sprawling challenge often lost in complexity.

And Salmon Nation will be alive and kicking Saturday in the fashionable Pearl District with a parking lot party at Beebe's sponsoring organization, Portland-based Ecotrust. The debut event is expected to draw as many as 3,000 people. There will be a free concert by Pink Martini, demonstrations and lots of wild chinook on the grill. People will receive ID cards affirming their citizenship in Salmon Nation.

There will be none of the doom and gloom that typically accompany events themed for the environment. Forget about scolding people for what they should be doing to protect the planet, Beebe said recently. He wants people to consider instead: We're all citizens of Salmon Nation — a land stretching from Alaska to California. And now this: If the salmon thrive, so will Salmon Nation. Human lives will be better for it.

Just do it.

Ecotrust couldn't afford to hire Wieden+Kennedy to design a full-fledged campaign. It couldn't do focus groups, either. But Ecotrust could buy pizza for one of the agency's top writers, and it could invite other Portland marketing gurus to a brainstorming lunch. The nonprofit also invested $1,000 in T-shirts and hats bearing the words "Salmon Nation." The idea was to see what images the words conjured with the public. "We convinced our friends to wear them," said Eileen Brady vice president for information and communications at Ecotrust.

They found Salmon Nation resonates with all types of people. A guy wearing the T-shirt on Hawthorne Boulevard was stopped by a kid on a skateboard who reportedly said: "Salmon Nation. That's where I live." Brady's T-shirt was stolen along with her car. The car was found, she said. But the thief kept the Salmon Nation T-shirt, leaving his old one behind.

Then Ecotrust distributed the T-shirt to commercial fishermen, many of whom have been hammered by competition from imported farmed salmon as well as fishing restrictions at home. Orders for more poured in. John Warner, owner of K-Lyn Fisheries based in Charleston near Coos Bay, agreed to turn his truck into a 24-foot-long moving Salmon Nation billboard. Warner, who buys fish off Oregon boats and delivers it to Seattle and San Francisco, says his truck draws a lot of attention on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

He says: "People come up to me and ask, 'What is Salmon Nation all about?' "

Ecotrust staff holed up with a couple of bottles of wine in a motel room in Seaside to plot the next step. They decided to write a four-page "SectionZ," recently inserted into local newspapers. Something that clearly and simply stated a set of shared values for this new Salmon Nation. They consulted books, poems and journals and settled on five themes ranging from shared natural resources to a shared cultural heritage. Then they hired Shannon Wheeler, an illustrator who created "Too Much Coffee Man," a comic popular among twentysomething audiences. Wheeler drew an assortment of characters — all citizens of Salmon Nation. They include Native Americans, loggers, backpackers and an '80s-style punker wearing an anarchist's symbol. "Mostly, I tried to get people to laugh," Wheeler said. "Also to be representational of different groups. Different ethnicity and ideologies."

At least so far, Wieden said he's impressed with the campaign. "It doesn't feel super-polished. It feels slightly underground" he said. "Yet the fact that it's slightly undisciplined makes it so appealing." Nobody is quite certain how Salmon Nation will play out in the long run.

If Saturday's kickoff party in Portland is successful, it will be restaged in Alaska, Seattle, San Francisco and, maybe, even Los Angeles. ShoreBank Pacific, longtime partner of Ecotrust, plans to offer a Salmon Nation Visa Card this spring. Outdoor and sportswear outfitter Patagonia will feature essays about salmon in the more than 5 million catalogs it distributes during the next year. Patagonia's Fall 2003 catalog includes an introductory essay by Beebe about Salmon Nation. Catalogs mailed later this month will offer Salmon Nation T-shirts. And part of the proceeds will be dedicated to the Salmon Nation community chest.

This has the potential to bring the present full circle with the past, said Antone Minthorn, former chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and a member of the Ecotrust board. Historically, Northwest tribes have referred to themselves as "Salmon People."

Perhaps, Minthorn said, Salmon Nation will unite us all.

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