WARC’s Asia Editor Rica Facundo speaks to Grey’s Graham Drew about the insight and strategy behind the agency's WARC Awards for Asian Strategy Grand Prix for Good-winning work for WWF, and how to reframe and turn a big and complex issue, such as sustainability, more actionable and relevant to consumers. View a sample of the case study analysis report of all entries here.

WARC: Give us a brief recap on the background to the campaign. What was the client's objective?

Graham Drew: WWF came to us with a brief about the problem of plastic. We know that plastic is in garbage piles but relatively recently, it has been discovered that because plastic doesn't degrade, it just continues getting smaller. It takes between 500 to 1,000 years to disappear and then becomes microplastics. It has come into every part of the food chain and damaging pretty much everything.

The big issue is that there is no silver bullet. Through the process, we learned that there are no regulations on plastic production. Companies can just make as much as they like. And as a society, we've learned to depend so heavily on plastic. And because it never degrades or goes away, there's just this mounting amount of plastic that is building up in the environment and causing harm.

The brief to us was to try and garner public support because although there's no sort of silver bullet, one thing that they did want to do was to try and create a globally binding treaty on plastic production. And the only way to do that is via the UN Environment Committee. The only way to influence that was to get enough public pressure to force all of the different member states to vote positively for this treaty. So not a small problem.

There were two key strategic imperatives mentioned in the case study – the challenge of making plastic personal and actionable. How did you land on these imperatives and why was this approach effective?

There have been lots of incredibly famous campaigns around plastic – the big plastic trash piles, people turning plastic pollution into big whales. So the awareness was really high. But what wasn't there was any kind of action.

Even though there are gestures such as to stop using single-use bags and straws, in the big scheme of things, we found that even if we did this, it’s less than 0.001% of the total amount of plastic. In the past, it has also been framed as an environmental problem. You see all these images of choking seabirds, whales with their bellies full of plastic and drowning turtles. And so people psychologically felt it was an environmental problem. Even though it’s really sad, it doesn't affect people in their lives.

If we were going to affect change on the kind of scale that we needed to do for WWF, we had to make it personal. In order to inspire action, they have to really feel it. So we had to find a way of framing the problem that way.

When the problem is so big, abstract and vast, you ask “what can little old me do about it?” I can recycle when I can reuse my plastic bags. But in the grand scheme of things, it's so small. But since the brief was essentially a lobbying brief, it was about public pressure. What we could do is have a really finite call to action, which is to get people to make a pledge.

Why did the team take a shock tactic approach to reframing the problem?

The look and feel of the campaign actually went through quite a few rounds. Plastic polluting the planet is not new. And even though the imagery around animals choking is upsetting, it gets worn out. The more you see it, the less effective it is. So we knew that we needed to make it personal.

There were a lot of ways we could visually execute the insight that plastic pollution isn't just in the environment, it's within us and we’re eating it.

At first, we dialed up that shock factor with visuals of people eating and chowing down on plastic, and kids were eating meals made out of plastic. But we quickly realised that this could also make people turn away. If it was too shocking, it makes people put their head in the sand.

The fact that you're eating plastic is shocking enough. So we kept the visual pragmatic and bold with colours that kept it bright and engaging.

The other reason for the boldness and simplicity of the visual is that it had to be flexible enough for WWF to use all around the world. It needed to be something that anybody could post anywhere without any sort of fear of it being banned. So a very, very pragmatic initial but with a really arresting message is what we tried to do.

Why was this approach – the juxtaposition of the “creative asset” with the shocking “data asset” – effective?

What really drove the success of the campaign is that we were able to distill a huge and complex problem about plastic and production into a single line, which is that it’s like eating a credit card every week. This allowed us to keep the communications really simple. But in the process, it also became a cultural asset.

Even though we launched the campaign with a load of campaign materials and some activations, it really quickly took on a life of its own. It was the simplicity and “WTF” factor of the factoid that really drove the campaign more than anything.

How do you turn a communication asset into a cultural asset?

It’s not that easy to do. Is there a science to creating culture? Absolutely not. But because it was such an arresting headline and fact, people like the Prime Minister of Norway or US scientists could talk about it.

We didn’t have the statistic right at the beginning. There wasn't any science about how much microplastic was in humans. It was kind of known that it was in the environment and that we were consuming it but no one had ever quantified it.

So we commissioned this research where the brief was to quantify the data so that we can have a fact that people can't refute. And the report came back with findings such as that 100,000 microplastics equates to around 250 grams a year. If we quantify this further, it goes down to five grams of plastic per week.

Then we spent about two weeks trying to figure out what weighs five grams. And then the question became what is a plastic object which every culture would know. This is how we landed on a credit card. By using the credit card, it also prompted that thought every time someone used the card. We literally put a bit of media into people's hands. The ubiquity of the credit card helped it become a cultural asset because it's a reference point that everybody can understand.

Sustainability is an important issue. What lessons from the campaign can you give to marketers about how to approach their sustainability initiatives?

Sustainability is huge at the moment, across pretty much every client you can think of. One of the key lessons that we learned from this campaign was about going beyond blindness. I don't think anybody needs to know that the planet is in trouble. We all know that.

We followed a pretty traditional model with this campaign, which is the “See, Think and Act” model. We created a very arresting headline “You eat a credit card a week”, which gets people's attention and gets them concerned.

But then, every single one of our campaign assets led to a campaign site, which allowed people to personalise the issue. They went on plastic diet.com, they went in there and did a really quick fun questionnaire, which told them more precisely how much plastic they ate. So it made it even more personal. And then straight after that, you were asked to sign a petition. So you see the big headline, you think about it like “Oh my God, now it's too personal”. How much specific plastic I eat, I can then share that data. But importantly, I can act on it as well. I'm giving people something tangible to do about it. I think that was a big part of why it was so engaging and successful. We gave people something really simple, where they felt that could make a difference.

Often, campaigns stop at “isn't this a big problem, do what you can”. This gave them something very simple, tangible to do that they were making a difference.