A scandal has unfolded this week that is rocking the foundations of UK nature conservation.
Yes, that’s right. The RSPB – now referring to itself in lowercase as the ‘rspb’ – has changed the name of its members’ magazine! The self-explanatory Birds is to become Nature’s Home.
I assume this is partly in order to recognise the work done by the RSPB to conserve non-birds. They know that birds cannot exist in isolation, and are also responsible for looking after plenty of rare invertebrates and plants on their nature reserves. But it also forms part of a general drive towards an all-wildlife agenda, which is presumably an attempt to attract a more diverse membership base, and a highly visible attempt at that, to the extent that they’ve commissioned the society’s first ever TV advert:
I have some sympathy here with the RSPB’s marketing staff. They’re trying to please all of their one million members all of the time, not to mention aiming to please the millions more they’d quite like to recruit in the future (although some have pointed out that the Wildlife Trusts could be forgiven for feeling their turf is being invaded).
But there’s a fledgling, vaguely socialist radical somewhere within me, and it predisposes me toward a suspicion of branding, advertising, marketing, or anything else that smells the least bit corporate. Especially as much of the above seems unnecessary for the normal functioning of a healthy society, and is often meaningless to the point of banality. My favourite example of this is the muffin one receives in lieu of a proper breakfast on transatlantic flights with British Airways. Though you have absolutely no choice over where the food comes from, it still comes wrapped in packaging emblazoned with a completely made up brand name, and an utterly stupid one at that: ‘Me, Myself and My…Muffin’.
Surely my beloved RSPB has not developed ‘Me, Myself and My Muffin’ syndrome? ‘Nature’s Home’ is certainly a corporate branding sort of phrase, which is a shame. I liked the simplicity of Birds; it reminded me of the various magazines the alcoholic, lecherous old priest character, Father Jack, would be pictured reading in 90’s sitcom Father Ted (Drink and Girls). Nature’s Home comes over as a touch arrogant, too, as if nature has absolutely no other homes left. But will it really make a difference to my overall perception of the RSPB?
Perhaps it already has. Earlier in the week I commented on Mark Avery’s post on this subject (he’s a former conservation director of the RSPB, and now a writer and professional troublemaker). I said that the content of the magazine as it stands is more of a problem for me than the name, and that I’d like to see more articles that go deeper into reserve ecology or the excellent research work done by the conservation science department. But when I double-checked afterwards to make sure I’d been fair by flicking back through the last issue of Birds, I saw that I’d almost overlooked a detailed, informative piece on the Flow Country, and an excellent feature on the investigations department. Simon Barnes’s feature on the State of Nature report contains a few graphs, would you believe, and I always enjoy his column too, as well as the one by Conor Jameson. They’re both superb writers.
In other words, there is much to admire in the magazine beyond the always magnificent cover images, but it might be that I’m more easily swayed by branding and presentation than I would like to admit. What I was looking for was there, to a point, it’s just that I was subconsciously being driven to believe I was reading a magazine that wasn’t for me, a feeling that admittedly isn’t helped by the frequent appearance of large gardens and children, neither of which I have.
So we do, after all, live in a world in which image is important, and influential, whatever my distaste for it. And it’s not as if I didn’t really know this. I try to make this blog an appealing enough place for visitors, on the understanding that a shoddy website would probably lead to the expectation of equally poor writing. Similarly, if the websites, magazines, publicity material and other communications of the RSPB and other conservation organisations were dated or cheap-looking, what would that say about how much they really value nature? Would it encourage the uninitiated to develop an interest in wildlife?
I suspect, therefore, that branding for nature is here to stay. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be expensive. Contrary to the popular public perception of charity spending, the lion’s share – around 90%* – of the RSPB’s income goes directly to conservation work, something it does really, really well. It’s work without which nature in the UK would be in a measurably sorrier state, given the size and influence of the society and its management of over 200 reserves comprising 0.6% of the UK land surface.
That’s reason enough for all of us who care about the poor state of nature in the UK to remain members, or join for the first time, whether or not we happen to like the ‘Giving Nature A Home’ lifestyle-magazine-esque rebranding exercise.** And what if that brand presentation ultimately recruits more enthusiastic young people than it loses in grumpy old birders? That might not be such a bad thing. Birds magazine is merely a pleasant quarterly read – albeit one with a circulation big enough to be the envy of almost any other publication in Britain – and is, with apologies to the editor, *** insignificant in the grand scheme of things. What we’re really fighting to save is Britain’s wildlife, and we’re not going to succeed at that without attracting the broadest possible coalition in its support.
*I looked at the last available accounts for Butterfly Conservation as a comparison, and for them the ratio of communications to conservation spending appears to be similar. The RSPB doesn’t, then, spend a great deal more as a percentage of its income on publicity and membership services than the smaller charities, it’s just an order of magnitude bigger. Incidentally, I am not currently a member of enough of the little ones. But I should be. Most of them already punch above their weight, so imagine the impact if that weight were to increase a little. My biggest remaining concern over the repositioning of the RSPB is that it doesn’t inadvertently end up squashing the little guys under its ever broadening feet. I’m sure that is not the intention.
**I do still wonder what happened to ‘Stepping Up For Nature’, or what was wrong with the excellent strapline ‘For Birds, For People, For Ever’?
***Sincere, sincere apologies: of course, I’d love to write for you!