—William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
It was Saturday, and we had shopping to do. The errands had piled up for two weeks; the groceries, the eyeglasses, the yard tools, they all needed to be bought in an efficient and thrifty manner. As Erin and I crisscrossed Portland to find deals, we were sucked into malls and box stores, lured by attractive displays to purchase incense, jeans and sports paraphernalia. Then, in the middle of the overcast Oregon afternoon, in the zenith of Northwest cool known as the Pearl District, there it was: Red banners, bumping bass lines and shoulder-to-shoulder people all buzzing about something called “Salmon Nation.”
Curious, we pushed into the fray, where a bluegrass band played on a stage set in front of one of the Pearl’s new housing developments. A Native American woman with a “Makah Nation” sweatshirt grooved to the music of the Gypsy Kings at a children’s activities booth. Someone had hauled a fishing boat into the plaza, where a grizzled fisherman in yellow rubber trousers sold wild salmon for $4.50 a plate.
And everywhere was the little red fish logo that could only be described as looking like the Nike swoosh.
“This is the weirdest thing ever,” Erin said. “What the hell do they want you to do? Eat salmon? Save salmon?”
No matter: Her attention was hooked by a newly sworn-in citizen of Salmon Nation carting away a tote bag with the swoosh fish silk-screened onto it: “Ooooh, I want one of those bags.”
On the stage, the emcee was pumping up the crowd. I hoped she would explain what Salmon Nation was. “In Salmon Nation, you gotta be able to party!” was all she yelled. “You gotta be able to dance!”
She introduced Spencer Beebe, a co-founder of Ecotrust, the Portland-based nonprofit that was behind Salmon Nation. “You all understand in your own way what Salmon Nation means,” Beebe said. In case we didn’t — and I still didn’t — he went on: “It’s a place where salmon go with the people who live there. It’s prosperous wild salmon runs and a vibrant economy.”
Beebe gazed out at the crowd of stroller-pushing parents and skeptical teenagers, who looked as if they’d like to get their groove going with the next band.
“Um, that’s all Salmon Nation is about.”
The entire world is quickly becoming one big shopping mall, proclaims Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the recent book, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping. Museums, universities, even churches, he says, are all succumbing to the consumer ethic — where even the most sacrosanct services are viewed as commodities to be hawked. At museums, “the more untreated the oak, the larger the profit center,” he writes, while monasteries are being “inflated to the scale of department stores.”
“Eventually,” Koolhaas says, “there will be little for us to do but shop.” And between each shopper and each product lies the magical realm of marketing. Whether people are buying a product or buying an idea no longer matters; the tenets of marketing are the same.
Salmon Nation’s creators understand this. They make no bones about their approach.
Way back in the 20th century, Ecotrust came up with a concept called the “conservation economy.” It used social and biological models to explain how people could live in balance with the ecosystems around them, and how economies should conform to watersheds and bioregions rather than political boundaries.
“It was a lot of stuff to swallow,” says Melissa Tatge, the Ecotrust designer who led the Salmon Nation campaign. “People weren’t grasping it.” When Ecotrust brought the idea to Dan Wieden of Wieden + Kennedy, the firm that handles advertising for Nike and Microsoft, he shook his head, says Tatge. Wieden recommended that Ecotrust “self-story” — that’s advertising lingo for building off what people already know. People know fish. Bingo. You have your brand: salmonnation.com.
Of course, the brand is not an end in itself. Ecotrust’s brass hope Salmon Nation is the river that will lead unsuspecting swimmers upstream to the enlightening headwaters of the conservation economy. The Salmon Nation Web site breaks the vision down into five tenets, each a simple one-liner, each touted by a cartoon person or animal: “We all live downstream,” “There is enough for everyone,” and so on. These lead to further, more complex explanations, and on up the river.
And Ecotrust will not be the last Western environmental group to use branding. The Sierra Club recently announced that its brand will be showing up on everything from pillows to toys and hats and jackets. The club hopes to raise roughly $1 million a year from sales, and turn customers into club members.
Before long, the agendas of profit and agendas of activism may be indistinguishable under thick coats of marketing. And why not? It behooves corporations and environmental activists to steal each other’s strategies.
The conservation economy could fill a PowerPoint presentation, but Salmon Nation can fill a public plaza in one of the hippest places in the country. Take your pick. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where tech industries cross-pollinate with the creative class in an air of ecological consciousness, Saturday’s crowd seemed to say the time is ripe for Salmon Nation.
I’ll tell you one thing: The next time I cross a river, I’ll stop and look down.