Salmon go swoosh in the Northwest

  It was Saturday, and we had shopping to do: groceries, eyeglasses, yard tools, and as we crisscrossed Portland to find deals, we were sucked into malls, lured by displays to purchase jeans and sports paraphernalia.

Then, in the middle of the overcast Oregon afternoon, in the heart of Northwest cool known as the Pearl District, there it was: shoulder-to-shoulder people 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 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’s behind Salmon Nation. "You all understand in your own way what Salmon Nation means," Beebe said. "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 world is becoming a shopping mall, proclaims Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the recent book, "The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping." Museums, universities and churches, he says, are all succumbing to the consumer ethic. Even monasteries are being "inflated to the scale of department stores." Eventually, Koolhaas predicts, "there will be little for us to do but shop."

Whether people are buying a product or buying an idea no longer matters. Salmon Nation’s creators understand this. 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 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 has handled advertising for Nike and Microsoft, he shook his head, says Tatge. Wieden recommended that Ecotrust "self-story" -- that’s advertising lingo for building on 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 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 Ecotrust is not the first Western environmental group to use branding. The Sierra Club recently announced that its brand will be showing up on everything from pillows to toys. The club hopes to raise roughly $1 million a year from sales while turning 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 makes sense for 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.

Tim Sullivan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He freelances from Portland, Oregon.