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.
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
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.
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
"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."
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:
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
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.