Developing an Outdoor Voice

Shaping the Perception of Land Conservation

The Trustees, an organization that set the precedent for private land conservation in the U.S., rebranded with an expanded idea of how and why we engage with nature.

Images Courtesy of The Trustees

By Mark Minelli and Nancy Jenner

In the age of social media overload and competition for awareness and loyalty, a strong brand can make the difference between a struggling organization and a thriving one. As a species, humans have evolved to be self-aware, challenging the world and shaping our experiences to our liking. Because we are intentional and aware, one might assume that we make decisions using a process that is linear and analytical. In fact, we are hardwired to do the opposite. We respond quickly and subconsciously and, even when we engage in rational thinking, past experiences and emotions influence our decisions. Consumers respond to and make decisions about brands influenced by or, perhaps more accurately, ruled by these systems of thinking. Our role as brand strategists and designers is to understand how these systems shape perception and behavior and how best to articulate our clients’ unique attributes in ways that are authentic, true, and tap into consumers’ emotions.

Informed by this understanding of perception and behavior, and employing the discipline of branding, we helped The Trustees, a New England land-conservation institution, leverage their strengths and reimagine what it means to engage in the 21st century.

First, a bit of history

At the end of the 19th century, available land in the dense urban regions along the East Coast was being quickly divided for farming, housing, and manufacturing. Boston was the fourth largest manufacturing center in the country, with hundreds of manufacturing plants consuming countryside and river fronts. While federal programs were growing to protect large areas of wilderness in the West, little was being done to conserve open space near urban centers, including Boston.

In 1891, Trustees of Reservations (now The Trustees), an organization dedicated to preserving natural and historic places in Massachusetts, established a legal entity – the first of its kind in the country – that became the model for conserving private land worldwide. The original legislation created a non-profit corporation “for the purposes of acquiring, holding, maintaining and opening to the public beautiful and historic places within the Commonwealth.” The intent was to set aside land and other natural and historic assets for public use and enjoyment.

The city of Boston was a leader in providing public access to resources once reserved for the wealthy elite. The city established the first public library in the country and one of the first art museums. In the same way the public gained access to books in libraries and art in museums, The Trustees was established to provide access to nature for all citizens. It was a radical idea.

Fast forward over one hundred years. As many land conservation organizations celebrate more than a century of operation, awareness of climate change is escalating. Air, land and water protection is becoming increasingly political, and social media has changed how we communicate. Issues of economic and social equity have become central to mission-driven organizations and shifts in funding and behavior among generations are impacting attendance and fundraising.

As the public’s awareness of changes in natural ecosystems rises and conservation organizations become more vocal, the critical task of reaching new and current audiences is both easier and more challenging. It is easier because of relatively inexpensive digital media with the potential for “viral” outreach and challenging because of competition for attention in our media-saturated society.

To address significant social and economic equity issues, land conservation organizations are learning that brand is more than signs and websites. Simply creating a sanctuary, installing a sign and expecting people to come is not likely to succeed. The Trustees had gained recognition as a leader in education initiatives, family programs, and public engagement in ways that help bridge geographic and demographic gaps, but finding the best ways to effectively communicate to targeted audiences remained elusive.

Challenges and Opportunities for The Trustees

Some of The Trustees’ challenges – specifically, deepening relationships with existing audiences and reaching and engaging new, younger audiences – are shared with most arts, culture, and environmental organizations in today’s rapidly changing world. Unique to The Trustees, however, is that the organization is actively expanding its reach into urban environments and establishing new partnerships, specifically in downtown Boston.

To mitigate the challenges and establish strong support and engagement for new opportunities, The Trustees needed to think strategically about how they were perceived and how best to engage. Minelli began working with The Trustees in the early 2000s, helping to set the foundation for their brand and engagement strategy. As they established their vision with a new strategic plan and new leadership, Minelli led a comprehensive brand update and designed an iconic new identity.

Tackling the shared challenges and unique opportunities with The Trustees involved learning how individuals respond to The Trustees properties and uncovering the underlying motivations and often subconscious responses to nature and the idea of conservation. One of the critical things we came to understand was that preserving properties and enjoying properties were often perceived as mutually exclusive endeavors.

Words and Pictures Tell the Story

Land conservation organizations, similar to other organizations that possess deep technical expertise, often use vocabulary that does not communicate effectively to the broader public. Conservation scientists and lawyers communicate using specialized professional terms that hold rich meaning in their peer networks but may not resonate more broadly. Language tends to focus primarily on technical details of ecology and species protection and less on the emotional connection to nature that resonates more deeply with the general public. Because they are focused on managing the properties, land conservation experts use rational, scientific, and legal terms to articulate why land conservation is important.

The Trustees’ founding mission centered on preserving unique places for public use and enjoyment, not on conservation for its own sake. However, as the organization evolved, communication became focused on the importance of keeping land from being developed and less on how people engage with The Trustees properties. The conservation angle worked for making the case that the land should be preserved and why people should support the organization, but the strategy wasn’t attracting visitors to the properties, especially the younger and more diverse audiences critical for continued success.

With no shortage of beautiful properties, the images The Trustees used to promote the organization were often stunningly beautiful. But, for many people, a photograph of a beautiful landscape and the words ‘land conservation’ imply that the land is being protected from people and is not for the public to use. This disconnect not only existed with the public, but also with The Trustees’ staff, who intuitively associated the organization’s focus on conservation with restricted use. Signs and staff were quick to list restrictions and slow to welcome visitors and urge them to explore and unwind. Access to properties was tolerated, not celebrated.

While The Trustees didn’t have to struggle to connect with the people who care deeply about the same things they do, they wanted to extend the opportunity to everyone, including people who had no established connection to nature. People who had little or no experience or memories of spending time in nature or had never been to a forest or beach didn’t understand how to experience The Trustees properties or why they should spend their precious free time visiting them. The organization needed a new vocabulary to engage this important demographic.

Disconnect for The Trustees

Using a variety of engagement tools with stakeholders and visitors, stakeholders and visitors, some of which shortcut rational thinking to access rapid, intuitive, “gut” reactions, we discovered a host of strong, visceral and emotional reasons why The Trustees’ properties mattered. People talked about the smell of the grass, the warmth of the sun and the sound of the ocean. They described the joy and freedom they felt disconnected from their jobs and the relentless demands of their technology devices, and talked about spending time with family and friends, as well as the renewed sense of health and clarity gained after a day outside. Rich in color, memory and intimacy, these emotional connections to the land became the basis of the brand and the stories used to frame future engagement.

Building on the evocative and emotional memories uncovered in the research, the brand strategy focused on how connection to nature enhances the human spirit in ways great and small. The goal was to build a brand that triggers personal experiences that are part of individuals’ memories and identities, not just their interests. While not everyone has an established relationship to nature, there aren’t many who don’t relate to the need to escape the daily grind or spend time with family and friends.

Designing the Brand Toolkit

Humans respond to stories and emotional triggers quickly and personally. As Brené Brown reminds us, “stories are data with a soul.” We knew that if we could tap into individuals’ emotional connection to nature and desire to escape and spend time with loved ones, the brand would resonate in new and inspiring ways, powering the organization as it worked toward its ambitious goals.

Brand messaging switched the focus from details about the properties and organization to focus on the experience of the visitor. The new branded materials invited the public to ‘find magic in the moment’ and ‘chat live with nature.’, making The Trustees the place ‘where wonder happens and spirits soar’. Photography assets were expanded to include more photos of people, details and close shots, complementing the existing glam shots of the properties. These evocative images celebrate the more sensual experiences that happen when engaging with Trustees’ properties – smells, textures, temperatures, tastes, and sounds as well as the visual beauty of the properties.

Trustees of Reservations, like many esteemed New England organizations, has a long history, and changing the name would be disruptive to the rich character of the organization, but the shorthand “trustees” of the new identity is easier to remember and allows for bolder applications which, in turn, have more impact.

The previous logo was horizontal, detailed and literal, unable to convey the breadth and diversity of the programs or properties. The new mark is stripped to its most minimal element. The lowercase “t” retains a connection to the typeface of the old identity while being reimagined to incorporate the leaf form. It is simultaneously bolder and friendlier, and the more compact form is easily applied to signage, print and social media.

If you are attempting to create recognizable branded signs at more than 100 properties in an area of the country that is primarily woodlands, having forest green signage (which the organization previously did) is not very effective. Nature is not just green. The new palette, a tapestry of rich colors, is drawn from the full range of hues found in the seasons of New England.

The new brand also had powerful implications for modifying internal culture. Brand training helped staff shift their understanding of their role from that of security guard to concierge, moving from warding off intruders to extending an experience of shared purpose and welcome. Focusing the brand on the human/enjoyment side of the mission made it easier to include the urban projects in The Trustees materials in ways that reinforced the overarching mission of public access and enjoyment.

The strong brand strategy and evocative visual and verbal tools reflect what people care about. The open and accessible look and feel enable the full diversity of contemporary communities to see themselves reflected in the organization based on their lifestyle, self-image and values. Perhaps most importantly, people are understood as central to promise of the brand, reflecting the original intent of the organization to set aside the special places that defined the character of Massachusetts for public use and enjoyment.

Any new brand is only effective if it raises awareness and engagement. The impact of the new Trustees brand didn’t take long to resonate. Attendance is up at the properties and funding has increased through individual and family contributions as well as granting organizations that measure an organization’s success by their ability to build diverse engagement.

People and Emotion at the Center

We’ve come a long way since the first railroad crossed the western plains and our interest in, and need for, protected land has never been greater. Conservation organizations such as The Trustees play a critical role in creating and sustaining a network of open land. Building support and engagement is critical. It begins with identifying and articulating, — in voice, image, and action, — the unique and authentic brand idea at the heart of the organization. People need land, and land organizations need people.

In its most pure form, the discipline of branding responds to and enhances the critical emotional underpinnings of a company or organization’s story. A successful brand provides critical cues and framing but also has great “white space” that allows individuals to see themselves reflected in the story. By putting people in the center of The Trustees brand and using evocative and sensory colors, words and images, audiences relate to the organization intuitively and are more inclined to engage.

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 014