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Nat Geo on Its Mission to ‘Activate’ Global Citizens, Drive Change Through Stories

National Geographic’s efficacy lies at the nexus of science, entertainment and purpose. We spoke with CMO Jill Cress to learn how this ‘purpose-native’ media giant maximizes its impacts through strategic partnerships.

For over 130 years, National Geographic’s multifaceted media platform has captivated millions; its award-winning team of explorers, photographers, journalists and filmmakers showcases the beauty, innovation and wonder — alongside the tragedy, injustice and need for change — around the world, through the power of effective storytelling. Nat Geo’s efficacy lies at the nexus of science, entertainment and purpose; this signature blend will be felt throughout the Storytelling track at next week’s SB’19 Detroit.

We caught up with Nat Geo CMO Jill Cress to learn more about how this ‘purpose-native’ media behemoth maximizes its impacts through strategic partnerships.

I've heard you refer to Nat Geo as a ‘purpose-native’ brand. What does that mean?

Jill Cress: For more than 131 years, National Geographic has been exploring, protecting the planet, and telling stories that matter. We believe that when people understand the world and their role in it, they will care more deeply and take responsibility for it.

Purpose has been at the core of National Geographic since its inception, and it continues to drive everything we do — from the stories we share within the pages of the magazine, across our television channels, on our social and digital platforms, to our marketing strategy, to the partnerships we make.

This long-held sense of purpose — that, through exploration we can make a difference by helping consumers care more about the world around them — this is the core of our business, and this alone can be credited for the quality, authenticity and impact consumers synonymize with our brand. It helps us drive conversations on topics that matter and inspires us to infuse every piece of content with our mission and brand purpose.

What are some examples of this in action? What have been the results/reactions from consumers to those examples?

JC: One of my favorite examples is our global Planet or Plastic? initiative – aimed at raising awareness about the global plastic waste crisis and reducing the amount of single-use plastic that reaches the ocean.

Each year, 9 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Some estimates suggest this plastic could remain in the environment for 450 years or longer, and the problem is only getting worse.

So, in 2018, we launched Planet or Plastic?, which asks consumers to make a choice and help reduce the amount of plastic waste reaching the ocean.

Planet or Plastic? leverages all of our unique assets — our award-winning storytelling, unparalleled social footprint; and nonprofit, scientific organization — and strategic partnerships with like-minded companies to explore why single-use plastic ends up in our oceans in the first place, and develop solutions that will have a measurable impact on reducing how much plastic reaches the ocean.

More than 20 countries launched Planet or Plastic? consumer awareness campaigns as a part of the effort. To date, people have pledged to help prevent more than 230 million single-use plastic items from reaching the ocean, helping us meet a goal of preventing 1 billion single-use plastic items from reaching the ocean.

And it is actually helping to bring a new set of consumers to Nat Geo. Roughly two-thirds of the people who have engaged with us via Planet or Plastic? had never interacted with our content, product or service before.

Jill Cress delivers a keynote at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Additionally, we just wrapped a Planet or Plastic? partnership with Wattpad, the global multi-platform entertainment company for original stories, to raise awareness of the global plastic crisis through a creative storytelling challenge, aimed at Gen Z. The contest alone resulted in more than 6,000 original Planet or Plastic?-related stories from young authors, and more than 75,000 individual pledges from the Wattpad community to reduce their single-use plastic footprint.

This is an initiative that we are passionate about and consumers are paying attention to. We will continue to think of ways to make everyone aware of the situation and how small changes to their habits can have a great impact on plastic pollution.

How does a heavy focus on purpose translate to Nat Geo's partnerships?

JC: Time and time again, we have found like-minded companies excited to join forces to amplify our purpose and drive consumers to make an impact.

As in the case of our Wattpad storytelling partnership — through which we aimed to inspire the next generation to do their part to protect the environment through creative storytelling and artistic activism — all of our partnerships must align with our central mission: to cultivate curiosity and care about our planet. As a result, we’ve seen our partnerships resonate deeply with our audience.

With Brita, we aimed to educate and activate consumers around our shared goal of reducing the amount of single-use plastics used by consumers. In support of our Planet or Plastic initiative, the multi-platform program included a sponsored New Year’s pledge offering consumers the opportunity to cut plastic in the new year, a New Year’s social campaign, and a moving custom video of Nat Geo photographer Pete McBride tracking the path of a plastic bottle and explaining the plastic pollution he’s seen firsthand.

With Stella Artois, we partnered to support their #1Chalice5Years campaign, aimed at ending the global water crisis, tied to World Water Month. Our custom, cause-based partnership with Stella in 2017 centered around World Water Day, with a social media takeover in March; a one-hour documentary, “Our Dream of Water”; and custom content pieces featuring filmmaker talent spotlighting key water issues, that aired on the Nat Geo Channel throughout Water Month. The campaign raised awareness of the clean drinking water issue with more than 200 million impressions; and more importantly, resulted in more than 500 people gaining access to clean and sustainable drinking water (from 160K chalice sales).

We’ve followed similar partnership models with organizations like GSK Consumer Healthcare — with whom we teamed up on a challenge to inspire, engage and ignite consumers everywhere to become catalysts of change in the world, in support of our “GENIUS: EINSTEIN” show on the Nat Geo Channel. The series called for world-changing ideas across three areas: building a more sustainable planet, improving global health, and feeding an eventual population of nine billion. The Chasing Genius challenge ended with winning a Shorty Social Good Award for Environment & Sustainability, and resulted in 225 million impressions and 3,000 ideas submitted.

As in the examples we’ve shared, we recognize that partnering with other organizations for good can result in a bigger impact. Collaboration is the only way we can make a marked difference on some of these big issues the planet is facing, and that’s why we’re excited to join the Sustainable Brands Corporate Member Network. We’re looking forward to collaborating with this tribe of like-minded companies using their power to drive a sustainable future.

Nat Geo's strength in driving change is through storytelling — what impacts have initiatives such as Planet or Plastic? and the ACTIVATE platform made to date? What can we expect next from those initiatives? Are other such platforms/campaigns in the works that you can tell us about?

JC: Great question. As I mentioned earlier, we are very proud to be using storytelling to raise awareness of the plastic pollution crisis with Planet or Plastic?, and it has been exciting to see our readers and audiences around the world pick up the mantle and take the pledge. This is just the beginning for Planet or Plastic? and we expect to have more important features coming out around the science of what we’re seeing. For instance, the National Geographic Society just launched an international “Sea to Source” expedition, studying plastic pollution in one of the world's most iconic waterways — the Ganges River — and we’re excited to work with the interdisciplinary, all-female expedition team to report on what they’ve been documenting.

And you can expect to see more from ACTIVATE in the near future, as well! ACTIVATE, as you mentioned, is our multi-platform storytelling partnership with P&G and Global Citizen to raise awareness about the critical issues of global poverty, inequality and sustainability –- or in other words, to ACTIVATE global citizens and drive change. The program features a series of celebrity-led documentaries around the topics of clean drinking water and sanitation, racial bias and criminalization of poverty, girls’ education, responsible sourcing, plastic waste and disaster relief. The six-part documentary series will air globally this Fall on National Geographic.

As our president of National Geographic Global Television Networks, Courteney Monroe, said at the outset, we hope that each episode will serve as a “rallying cry that we hope will move audiences around the globe from ‘intent’ to ‘action.’”

As always, more exciting initiatives to come.