John Marshall ’87 and Jessica Lu ’17 say our most urgent global crisis has a public relations problem

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Headshot photos of Jessica Lu ’17 and John Marshall ’87
From left, Jessica Lu ’17 and John Marshall ’87 of the Potential Energy Coalition.
Photo by Joe Pecoraro

John Marshall ’87 and Jessica Lu ’17 work with the Potential Energy Coalition, which Marshall founded to be “planet Earth’s marketing firm.” They say climate change needs better marketing — better language, better clarity — to help people who are reluctant about the crisis to understand and care. On the latest PAWcast, they shared some of what they’ve discovered with PAW.


Liz Daugherty: I’m Liz Daugherty, and this is the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s PAWcast, where we talk with Princetonians about what they’re doing on campus and beyond. 

Today I’m speaking with John Marshall ’87 and Jessica Lu ’17, who work with the nonprofit Potential Energy Coalition. They say climate change has a public relations problem. It’s the biggest crisis of our time, but too often the people with solutions don’t communicate them in a way that resonates with the public. The solution, they say, lies in what just happens to be the field where Marshall built his career and expertise: marketing. About seven years ago, he founded Potential Energy to be planet Earth’s marketing firm and use tools of the trade — think, surveys, data, and more data — to answer this question: How do we make people care about climate change and then act? 

LD: Thank you both for taking the time for this today. Let’s start with some introductions. John and Jessica, could you briefly explain how you got to Potential Energy? And don’t leave out any role played by your Princeton education, please.

John Marshall: OK, great. Well, I went to Princeton in ’87, and then I had, I guess since graduating from Princeton, a 35-year career in finance and then management consulting. And then it worked its way into marketing, and I became a professor, at a lesser-known Ivy League school called Dartmouth College, of marketing. So I had largely been a commercial marketer, working with big brands like Walmart and Bank of America and Comcast, and trying to help them with their brands and their marketing and so forth. So that was my life and my career.

My 17-year-old was taking a course in school one day and came home. He actually had printed out an ad from an environmental NGO, and held it up, and said, “Dad, what are you doing with your life? You’re selling shampoo.” And so, no one knows what’s happening, and the messaging on climate is really bad. And so, he literally said, “I’m locking you in the house for two days. You’re in the marketing industry, you’re working on Madison Avenue, you’re working with all these big companies. I want you to call all your fellow senior execs and see if the marketing industry can do something about this and try and sell a product that’s worth selling, which is climate change.”

So that was a few years ago. Potential Energy was formed five years ago, but my kid made me do it. So he basically is responsible for the beginning of Potential Energy. I think the link to Princeton I think was ... A little bit “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” that was stuck in my head. And after 35 years I thought, “Well, I got to do something.” And I was actually a chemistry major at Princeton, and I’ve always had a bent for data and for science, and I thought if you could take a scientific method, albeit in marketing, that I grew up with, and apply it to this problem, could you think your way out of it? Could you figure out how to get more people to care? 

So that’s my story. I was happy enough to have an amazing team to join. And Jessica, I think was employee three. So I can kick it over to her and talk about her background and why she entered this big endeavor.

Jessica Lu: Yeah. So I think I always knew I wanted to work in climate. I didn’t exactly know how. So I picked civil and environmental engineering thinking that having environmental in the degree title would surely land me in the ballpark at some point. And kind of similar to John, I loved the science of it, the learning about the atmosphere and the geology and emissions and reducing risk. But I think I also, what I really liked about the Princeton approach to engineering is that it was a very liberal arts approach. And at the same time you’re reading environmental policy, you’re taking literature courses and art courses, and at some point you see how they all connect. And the storytelling element of climate, I think, I didn’t realize at the time, but now working at Potential Energy, feels a little bit like an aha moment, “Oh, all the pieces kind of fit together.” So that was really neat for me.

But after I graduated from Princeton, I took a fellowship and it was funded by another alum, Carl Ferenbach [’64], and it put me in a foundation where they invested in early stage nonprofit social enterprises. I got a really good bird’s eye view of what climate solutions people were working on, what entrepreneurs and innovators were thinking about, and I think had the realization: Wouldn’t all the solutions be getting out there much faster if the playing field was a little bit more level? And that required policies, and the policies require building public will. And so when I heard about Potential Energy and the work that they were doing, it was a little bit like, “Yes, please sign me up. I think that’s exactly what we need to do.”

LD: So I’m thinking, let’s start with the problem and then we’ll move on to the solutions that you guys are finding. So Potential Energy actually calls it “the world’s hardest communication problem,” that’s on your website. So what’s going on as you see it?

JM: Yeah. Well, there’s some features of the problem that are inherently hard. I would say the two of them are it’s slow and it’s a collective action problem. And so there’s 8 billion people on the planet. And so it has two features from a marketing point of view. One is it has a relevance problem. It doesn’t necessarily mean that much to the individual because it’s a slow thing. And secondly, it has an agency problem. Does the individual feel that they can actually really tackle it? So it’s a wicked problem. It’s hard. It’s hard to sell this because of the agency problem and the relevance problem. And I guess our view on that is, all the more reason to throw some real horsepower at marketing and marketing analytics and marketing data to try and figure it out. 

But all that being said, I think the real problem is that it hasn’t had marketing. For 40 years, we’ve had policymakers and climate scientists talking about decarbonization and Anthropocene and net zeros and carbon footprints and GHGs, and no one knows what the hell we’re talking about. So no one wakes up in the morning and says, “What a great day for some decarbonization.” And so we’ve just had this phenomenon by which it’s been in the clutches of the policymakers. And yeah, most people think “scope three” is a mouthwash, not a level of admission. So we just don’t have the right frames, the right phrases, the kinds of things that you do when you’re trying to sell any product in climate. 

So I think we’re just trying to fill a void, quite honestly, that’s been missing and it’s been awesome how much demand there is for marketing and messaging since we’ve started. We get calls from all over the world right now on, “Can you help us with X? And can you help us with Y?”

LD: That’s interesting. Jessica, would you agree with that?

JL: Yeah, absolutely. Especially when John mentioned the relevancy point. Even a lot of my classmates and peers, when I talk to them about 1.5 degrees, they’re a little bit unsure what it’s about. What does it mean? How is it related to climate? And so there’s just a huge gap I think, between where people who spend a lot of their time thinking about climate versus what 95% of the population is thinking about.

LD: Well, speaking of gaps, I noticed that you guys had some data on different countries and the U.S. is so far behind. The amount that people in the U.S. care and are invested in seems to be way behind everyone else. So what’s wrong with us?

JL: Well, I think one big part of it is that there is an industry out there, the fossil fuel industry, that has been spending 50 years spreading misinformation and disinformation about it. And that’s kind of put us on a step behind when it comes to the truth about science and the consensus around climate science and what we need to do to act. I think the U.S. is also distinctive in that regard. We didn’t quite see that trend elsewhere. And there’s just a high level of polarization where climate has become, in some ways tied to your political identity and your values in a way that it shouldn’t because climate is a nonpartisan, affects-everyone issue. And so that’s part of the work that we’re trying to do, to help people understand that.

JM: Just to build on the polarization side, I think the U.S., here’s an interesting thing: We looked at 82 political parties in 23 countries in our global work, and the members of four political parties across the globe have less than a majority support for climate policies. So the other 78 are all good. Two of those are in Australia, one is in Canada and one is in the U.S. And so I think the U.S. is starkly more polarized than other countries. In India, conservatives are more favorable to both climate solutions than progressives, whereas in the U.S., there’s a 47-point gap between progressives and conservatives in terms of the support. So for a series of reasons, we’ve become a divided nation on this much, much more so than even places like the U.K. 

Our theory on this, as our company is going global now and we’re entering the U.K. and other countries, we sort of think that we’re doing all the really hard data work. It’s like training for a marathon in Denver, Colorado. When we get down to other places to ground level, we’ll be more fit, and we’re able to do it. This is the high-degree-of-difficulty country to try and figure out how do you get majority in consensus and non-politicized support for this particular issue.

LD: Have you found that burnout is a problem? I was just thinking about myself and some of the articles that I’ve read. It just seems like the hopelessness factor, what can we really do? It’s hopeless, I can’t even begin to tackle it. Have you found that that’s an issue at all?

JM: People bring this up a lot, and we just go to the data on questions like this. There’s about 8% of the U.S. population that you would call in a doomerist segment, so it’s pretty small. And so I do not think the big problem is doomerism right now. I think it is a problem. I think it’s going to be a growing problem. I think it needs to be addressed and respected and taken care of. But I think the biggest problem is ignorance, and that’s why we’re running these nonprofit education campaigns. Do you know what the average person on the planet thinks the UN’s target is for an acceptable warming level?

LD: 1.5 degrees Celsius?

JM: I’ll kick it to Jessica to give you the answer.

JL: Four degrees Celsius, which is catastrophic if it actually happened. And so, yes, I’ll pass it back to John to finish the thought.

JM: Four freaking degrees. And so there’s a bubble problem. There’s a series of people in the middle saying, “Oh, no, decarbonization scope three, doomers, and all this stuff,” and yet there’s 8 billion people on the planet sleepwalking off a cliff and thinking that the goal is four degrees. And so the biggest problem with climate communications is it doesn’t exist enough. There’s not enough repetition, there’s not enough conversation, there’s not enough education. Only 20% of Americans think clean energy has gotten cheaper, and solar has gone down 90% over the last decade.

So I think our big feeling, having looked at the data, is this is a really under-communicated product. We need to create a market and we need to grow the number of climate activists. And a little bit of worry is OK. And so, I’m not part of the, “Oh, no, there’s a shutdown doomerist problem.” I think it’s a legitimate thing to worry about for 8% of the population. I’m worried about the big swath of the population who doesn’t know what’s coming. And I actually think that’s the way you unite people is you educate them with respect and with their values. So we’re in that, how do we get 8 billion people to care about it business, as opposed to the small number of people who are climate activists.

LD: So what have you guys found that does work when you’re talking about climate change to get people to care? And what doesn’t work? Can you give us some examples?

JM: Well, I think we’ve served about 3 billion ads, and then we measure those because, in the digital world, this is the forefront of marketing stuff. In a digital world, you can see the response of what you do. And then we’ve tested somewhere between 500 and 600 different pieces of content and spent thousands of hours sitting in focus groups listening to folks. And so I would say after — it’s almost our fifth anniversary — after five years, we’re starting to see some patterns, and we’re starting to get a little more conclusive. 

And we’ve boiled it down to a three-part rule. I’ll do a part, and I’ll kick it over to Jessica. So the three parts are simplicity, humanity, and accountability. The simplicity stuff, which I mentioned before with the decarbonizations and so forth, is really foundational to all of this, that when you explain something in a way that resonates with people and you learn from the different tests, what resonates more, like, we’ve created just a phrase, the pollution blanket, early on. And we found, “Oh, that really works way better than climate change.” No one knows what climate change is, but if they can envision in their mind a blanket of pollution that’s overheating the earth, that works pretty well. 

So the first one is really try and change the language. Actually, talk less about climate change stuff, more about extreme weather, take out all the jargon, talk about consequences, don’t say warming, warming’s nice, say overheating, all of that kind of stuff is a really big part of the communication solution. 

Probably the bigger piece when I talk about relevance is humanity. So that’s rule two. And I’ll pick up on accountability as rule three. And Jessica, you want to talk about what you’ve learned on the humanity side?

JL: Yeah, I think it’s very adjacent to the simplicity tenet, which is what we found works again and again is real human stories, real people that are being affected by it, how they’ve lost their family farms or their kids have health consequences as a result of climate change events. Those stories really resonate — people like you and me and what climate change is doing to our day-to-day life. And even just the difference between showing a face in an ad and not showing the face of the person in an ad, you can see a dramatic difference in the effect that you get. The one with the face like a close-up shot straight up front, you just see a stronger alignment with the fact that we need to be doing something about climate change.

JM: This is a little story on that. We got funding from a billionaire not to be named, not a Princeton alum, under the theory that, “OK, let’s develop an ad about the economic boom that’s a consequence of climate change,” which is a very appealing concept to the overthinkers who populate the climate segment. And most people don’t think about economic competition and job creation, and economic boom and innovation, all that stuff. They’re just thinking about their daily lives. And so we run these randomized control trials where you expose a person to a message, you have a control cell that doesn’t see the message, and you observe with data to see the impact.

We had that ad that we made compete against an ad of a mom, a scientist mom talking to another mom, just explaining the cause of extreme wildfires. One had a 1% lift, and the other had an 11% lift. And so you have a 10 times more effective thing to deliver on human stories, which might not be the most obvious or stunning finding in the world, but there’s so much cerebral messaging that goes on in the issue and so little human messaging. And I think the advantage of having marketers in there is we’re just into telling human stories. Getting a violin in the ad, getting the piano out, playing the tune, talking about your kids’ future tugging on the heartstrings. That stuff really works compared to the technocratic stuff.

LD: That’s really interesting. You guys have a whole theory about suburban moms?

JM: Yeah, it came from the data, to be honest. We came in and said, “Let’s do a massive study and see who we can move the most with a whole series of messages.” And so we ran an initial study to figure out where the leverage was or where elasticity was, like if you spent X number of dollars on Y segment, who would move the most? And two segments just popped out right away. One was suburban women, and one was Latina women. And so that was the genesis of that being where we spent a lot of money. Jessica can talk to you a little bit about what we see on gender because it’s been a fascinating learning. After 525 tests, we know a little bit about how men versus women operate, so I can expose that to you, or Jessica can.

JL: Yeah, I think coming out of the 500 or so messages we’ve tested it’s just kind of stunning to see how frequent women are more persuaded by the messages than men. It’s quite hard to move men on the supporting more action on the issue. And what’s interesting, too, is we ran a global study, as John, I think, mentioned earlier, across 23 countries, and that phenomenon largely holds true in these other places. And so I don’t want to maybe speculate why, to avoid stepping into stereotypes, but I think it is quite fascinating just looking at the numbers.

JM: I often give talks about this, and we’ve spent a significant amount of philanthropic dollars to prove something that most women in the audience already know: that they’re thinking more than men. But we’ve proven it definitively and statistically now, and I’ll easily place a bet with anyone on your podcast about the result of our next RCT that women will lift more than men, because we have just seen it happen almost every time.

LD: Is there anything that surprised you, that’s really jumped out that you didn’t expect, from the research you’ve done?

JM: I think there’s a conventional wisdom that exists that I subscribed to early on that, “Oh, stop talking about the problem. We should just start talking about the solution,” which just doesn’t appear to be the case from the data. It appears to be very valuable to tell people the extent of the problem, which is probably natural because you make the issue relevant. But there is, I’m not going to say that solutions messaging isn’t important, because if you do activate someone on the nature of the problem, you’re going to have to tell them where you have to go. But if you leap straight to “we can solve this,” you’re just less effective than if you go right to “this is a problem for you, your family, and the people you love.” And so I think there’s a lot of conventional wisdom about how to do this that isn’t backed with the degree of rigor that we’re trying to deploy here.

And we’ve gotten OK with creating worry, I think, because it’s a really big problem and we should be worried about it. So if we can create more worry, then we are going to create demand further on for the solutions. And so I think that balance has been an important learning. We’ve done maybe — stop talking, give you a chance, Jessica here — but we’ve done a lot of work on the economic side, which is a pretty prevalent territory, especially in political circles. We’ve learned a fair amount about economic messaging, which also is counter to what some of the conventional wisdom is. 

JL: I think what we see a lot from those circles of messaging around clean energy is creating new jobs or clean energy is cheap. And I think those are factually true. We kind of all know this having standard time thinking about the solutions, but it’s just, if facts or figures were enough to persuade people, we wouldn’t be in the dilemma that we are now. And so thinking about to what degree that the jobs piece, and the energy, and the cost piece is relevant but also makes sense in people’s lived experiences. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet. And that’s why the worry piece, and starting from the problem, is a place where people are more open to hearing about how they can get engaged on climate change.

JM: I think I had an idea at the very beginning when we started how you write a manifesto when you start a company up. And so I found this manifesto a few years later. I looked at it, and it had a tagline, which I loved, and the tagline was, “Stop at nothing.” And so I had this idea that, OK, so we’re going to make it a high energy thing where we’re going to stop this problem and we’re going to get to zero emissions. It was a total bomb, but that was before we had all the data that we’ve got now. And it taught me humility. It taught me that we should follow the data, not necessarily our own brain’s logic path on it. And it makes some sense. No one wants to go to zero, no one knows what net zero even means.

But after we did the “stop at nothing” thing, we did a test. I got very interested in Florida, and we did a test. We tried to get people to sign petitions with this digital marketing campaign, and one petition said, “Get to net zero by 2040.” And the other petition said, “Save Florida.” And so the Save Florida petition was four or five times more productive. So I was at the Aspen Institute conference last week, and I said, “We should rebrand it to the Aspen Conference to Save Florida. We’d get like three times the attendance.” So it is the things that people think about and care about that end up mattering, not necessarily the conceptual stuff. And that’s my message to all the educated Princetonians on the podcast as well. There are some members of overthinkers anonymous in the climate community.

LD: So who out there is using information that you guys are pulling together? Who are some of the, where might we be seeing some of your ideas kind of bubbling up and presenting themselves in the public? Who’s using it?

JM: Yeah. Well, so we do two things. We run campaigns, and then we have a knowledge business where we educate others as to how to message. And so, on the campaign side, we have four or five campaigns we run. We have a multi-state campaign called Science Moms. We run work in California and Michigan and North Carolina, and other places. And so lots of people will see that because we’ve picked audiences, and we’re moving them pretty significantly. 

But the second part of the business is basically trying to be a knowledge resource to anybody who’s communicating on the climate. So that’s the large green groups, that would be political leaders of all shapes and sizes, that will be corporate leaders. We’ve been coaching a lot of companies recently as to how do you navigate what’s become oddly treacherous territory around ESG. And so we developed guidance on that. So basically, senior leaders in the public sector and the government sector and the nonprofit sector and the corporate sector, all of those we engage with to try and advise them on, “If you say this, you’re likely to have a more effective outcome.” 

And so we’ve been at that for about three and a half years now, the knowledge business, and we’re starting to see our frames pop up in the media. We also educate journalists on frames that will have greater appeal to their target audience as well.

LD: I wanted to make it personal here towards the end as we get to the last few of my questions. How would you convince someone to come over to your side on a more personal level? Like you’re at Thanksgiving, you want to talk a relative into buying an electric car. Do you have any advice for the everyman?

JM: Jessica, that’s a hard one. I’m going to get that to you.

JL: I know, I was just thinking that.

JM: I can throw out, while you’re thinking, I can throw out a couple of thoughts. The discipline of marketing is fairly simple, and two words always come to mind. Empathy, which is basically another word for insider research and so forth. And then relevance, trying to figure out how to make something fit into what somebody is dealing with or struggling with or caring about. And so I think it’s always about understanding what a person’s beliefs and values and needs are, and then trying to make the product relevant for that. 

So as an example, there’s a conceptual marketing thing, but as an example, I will try and never say the word climate change without a consequence within 15 words. OK, so that’s helpful. The climate change that is blank. There’s raising your food prices, there’s increasing your insurance costs, that is causing excessive wildfires. Because if you don’t make, and the term is kind of goofy, by the way, anyway, climate change, it doesn’t mean anything.

We should not be fighting climate change. What the hell does that mean? We should be fighting the pollution that is causing climate change. It’s much more understandable. So I always talk about pollution. I always try and put a consequence in, and it’s going to depend on who the person is and what the segment is. But if you start with, the way you think about it, start with somebody, what somebody really cares about and put it in that particular context, which by the way, is one of the big reasons we talk to moms a lot because kids are just the most valuable lever that we have in the messaging toolkit. We talk about people’s kids and what’s the planet going to be like. 

And so what would be the reason I would tell somebody to buy an electric car? It would be because you love your kids. It’s hard not to buy the electric car when you say that.

JL: I feel like it’s hard to top that one, John, when you head there.

LD: All right. Well, that gets through a lot of my questions. Is there anything else you guys wanted to talk about or anything you’d like to mention or get into?

JM: Well, I will say that we bump across amazing Princeton alums all the time in the climate space, and so we’re happy to be part of that community. So many of our research partners went to Princeton as well. So I don’t know what, there’s a lot of Canadians and there’s a lot of Princetonians working on this, and so don’t know why, but are appreciative of what the community has done.

LD: Well, great. Well, thank you guys so much for taking the time to talk to me today. This has been really interesting.

JM: It’s been a ton of fun. Thanks for having us. This means a lot to me.

JL: Thanks for having us.

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