What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Humans, Branding and Raising Online Cash

From the opening minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness, Vulcan logic was at odds with human emotion. There was an immediate tension between Kirk, whose actions are driven by his emotional right-brain and Spock, whose mixed Vulcan-human heritage leads him to be overly logical.

This tension – between two movie characters – is no different than the tug of war that goes on in our human heads when trying to make important decisions. Understanding the dance between our emotional and logical brains is fundamental to unlocking the true power of brands and nonprofit fundraising.


You Need More than Vulcan Logic to Save the Redwoods

To explain, we must first return to Earth – to the redwood forests of Northern California. It is here that an organization of ordinary humans does truly extraordinary work. Save the Redwoods League, which was founded in 1918 by a crew of visionary conservationists, has played a critical role in protecting some of the most iconic stretches of land in the nation.

For those who have had the chance to stand in the midst of a Northern California redwood grove, there are few life experiences that match it. Despite great success at protecting some truly majestic places, the organization has had to compete for donor dollars in an increasingly competitive nonprofit environment in which they need to raise the funds necessary to complete multi-million dollar land deals.

When Jennifer Benito, director of outreach for the League, approached Fenton, she felt that their brand needed an emotional lift. Increasingly, the League was communicating about their success with numbers, jargon and dry data points. The true emotional power of the redwoods was sometimes lost.

If the League’s donors were all Vulcan, whose brains are all linear and logical (like the left hemisphere of human brains), it would be enough to do truly outstanding work. The facts would speak for themselves.

Competing for attention in a crowded space of good causes, the League wasn’t tapping the full potential of the emotional brain – the part of our mind that drives passion and donor dollars. As one League staffer put it, “You cannot fight emotion with facts.”


“Excuse Me, What’s That Emotion You’re Experiencing?”

Recognizing that the answer to the League’s brand challenges wouldn’t be discovered while sitting in our San Francisco office, the Fenton brand team took a road trip to Muir Woods, a redwoods national monument north of San Francisco. We wanted to know more about the emotional experiences that people have while visiting a redwood forest.

While there, we conducted a brand interview with a park ranger who offered an important insight.

“It can be stressful to get to a redwood park,” according to the ranger. “Visitors usually have to travel long distances, including a drive on long, windy roads. Honestly, some people look a little green when they get here.”

She then pointed to the parking lot. “I often watch visitors walk down that long pathway from the parking lot to the entrance of Muir Woods. It’s the same for everybody. You can watch the stress from the long drive melt away just as they enter the archway to Muir. Even fussy kids are immediately at peace.”

After the interview, our small band of brand explorers hiked through Muir Woods. We watched how other visitors interacted with the forest and we took note of our own emotional reactions. Back at the office, I noticed an important similarity between what we saw in the woods and the most popular images of redwoods on the web.

In both the forest and on the web, people wanted to be photographed next to these giants. They were fascinated by the colossal nature of the trees in contrast to the relative smallness of our human frames. Will Austin, a talented Seattle photographer, captured images of his trip to Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park in Northern California. One of his photographs is of eight people linking their outstretched arms and barely making it halfway around the base of a single redwood.

During our field trip to Muir, we were also captivated by the way that the trees filtered the light – reminiscent of being inside of a grand cathedral. The sacred atmosphere is further enhanced when the coastal fog interacts with the light, as seen in Will Austin’s breathtaking Del Norte images.

Our collective research helped us to understand the emotion that people were experiencing. It was awe.

Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt have written about what they describe as the under-researched emotion. According to Keltner and Haidt, awe has two fundamental characteristics–perceived vastness and accommodation, the process by which a person’s existing mental structures struggle to understand a new experience. This is what we were seeing in people’s interactions in the forest and their photographs on the web.

Keltner and Haidt say that people experience awe in response to five situations: threat, beauty, ability, virtue and supernatural causality. When in a redwood grove, many experience both profound beauty and something spiritual, whether they are religious or not. This explains the sense of immediate peace that many experience, along with the sense of wonder about trees that seem to touch the heavens.

Call it nirvana or the Garden of Eden, but when people visit a redwood forest, they leave behind the chaos of modern life for a brief moment in paradise. The League was not fully capitalizing on the emotional power of their mission – to protect these last remaining patches of paradise.


Protecting Paradise, Raising Online Dollars

Based on our research, which included in-depth interviews with external stakeholders and online “social listening” research on how park visitors described their redwood park experiences, we helped the League pump up the emotional volume of their work by crafting a brand narrative that positioned the League as a guardian of paradise. League staff did an amazing job in putting our recommendations into action beginning with an overhaul of their website.

We encouraged them to use language on their website like this: 

It can be a long, winding even stressful drive to Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park at the northernmost tip of California. But it only takes moments to be completely at peace here. Step into this cathedral-like stand, and you’ll gaze upon immense redwood columns rising to a canopy that filters the sunlight. A thick carpet of needles and ferns traps every sound, creating remarkable silence. This magical space will suffer unless we take care of the land and waterways around this park.

The evocative language mentally transports each web visitor from SaveTheRedwoods.org to the tranquil sanctuary of a redwood grove.

In the year since the overhaul, the League’s online donations have jumped by 32%.

The good news hasn’t stopped there. I recently received this email from Jen Charney, the League’s communications manager: “I wanted to thank you and your team for your help. I just found out we won an IABC Gold Quill award for the redesigned SaveTheRedwoods.org, which I rewrote according to your brand narrative.”

Together, Fenton and the League were able to discover the emotional spark needed to arouse passion among potential donors. Other nonprofit leaders can do the same, but first we must learn to speak to both Spock and Kirk. Begin by doing truly outstanding work. Then make sure you are tapping into the deep desires and emotions that drive human motivation.

Live long and prosper.