The power of design: How branding helped create an enormous ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs

The power of design: How branding helped create an enormous ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs
The government recently announced the creation of a massive ocean reserve in the Kermadecs – a highly unique 620,000 square kilometre region featuring one of the deepest ocean trenches on earth – in the south-west pacific off the coast of North Island.

This announcement did not appear out of the blue.

Rather, it was the result of a conscious, sustained effort by the Pew Charitable Trust, Forest & Bird and the WWF who had worked to raise awareness about the region and the need to protect it.

To achieve that end, Pew Environmental Group (PEW) enlisted communications and design agency Insight Creative to formulate a campaign that would create awareness about the region, encourage interested communities – such as scientists, conservationists, Maori and mining interests – to get involved and put the issue of the Kermadecs into the political arena.

“PEW first approached us in 2010,” says Insight CEO, Steven Giannoulis.

“They wanted to develop some brochures to tell the Kermedec story. We talked to them through the typical engagement process of awareness, interest, desire and action and the need to help guide audiences through the process.”

“This led us to focus on who the key audiences and influencers were and to develop some insights as to what it would take to change their perceptions and lead them to take action. PEW knew this was a long term goal and we could therefore take a longer term strategic view in developing a communication programme. Each element of the programme was designed to move audiences closer to that long term goal.”

PEW needed to impress a diverse audience – including politicians and their advisers, conservation groups and relevant academics – if the campaign was to be successful.  

“The client had a broad set of messages they wanted to get across and our challenge was to tailor the messages, the tone of voice and the delivery channel to the audience," says Giannoulis. "Some audiences required details and facts while with others we focused on appealing to the heart.”

A series of communication pieces were devised to stretch across these various targets, starting with a printed communication platform, aimed at ‘capturing hearts and minds’, and designed to be read by a broad audience – politician to scientist, conservationist to antagonist – and was text light and image heavy.

Giannoulis says that the team drew inspiration from the Trench itself, incorporating the actual geography of the Kermadecs into the design elements of the project.

“Like most brands we started by gaining an understanding what made the Kermedecs unique and why audiences should care about it,” he says. 

“Our creative inspiration was the depth of the Kermadec Trench – 10km at its deepest – and the variety and colour of life at different levels. This idea we applied to the typography [on the printed material] which runs vertically and has deep ‘trenches’ within the letters, and the photographic treatment and web-page designs move the viewer from light to dark, as the waters themselves do.” 


The next step was to create positioning material for a science symposium, designed to coincide with the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Focusing on visual impact, the design team transformed the wall of Te Papa into a ‘diversity-scape’, a lightbox of images depicting the diversity of the Kermadec region.

“For the symposium we wanted to achieve high impact through a strong visual approach,” says Giannoulis, “making the invisible visible. The idea was to inspire the scientific community to get behind the cause and a visual approach allowed an emotional connection with the Kermedecs. The approach was hugely successful in creating awareness amongst this audience and opening up lines of communication.”

To keep the lobbying pressure up, the next phase of the programme was conceived to create a long and enduring ‘tail’ to the campaign.

“This idea came about from a brainstorming session with the PEW team and was designed to lift the conversation back up to an emotive level and to create a vehicle for the wider community to get engaged in the discussion,” says Giannoulis.

“Our aim was to use artists as a means of telling a different story about the area – not your typical National Geographic science doco approach. We saw the artists as storytellers, making the Kermedecs more accessible to all New Zealanders. The exhibition was widely travelled and well-attended, attesting to its success in making the Kermedecs accessible.”

The resulting works have now travelled the length of New Zealand’s art galleries, drawing attention to the vulnerability of the Kermadec region, and are now working their way around the world.

In September 2015, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, John Key announced that the desired result had been achieved: stand-alone legislation had been created to make the Kermadecs a protected marine sanctuary, one of the largest in the world.

“This is an incredible outcome and we couldn’t be more delighted for the team at PEW,” says Giannoulis.

“They, and so many others, have worked hard to make this happen. Our aim is always to create powerful work and we feel extremely proud that we’ve contributed to something as important as this.”

“For me the most important lesson of this story, in relation to design, is the way that good design allows organisations like PEW to achieve their organisational or business objectives.”

“Effective communication is the life-blood of any successful initiative designed to lead an end audience to take a particular action. Smart organisations use design to engage their customers, investors, employees, community and other stakeholders in order to drive perceptions, behaviours and advocacy.”

“As an industry, we often celebrate the short-term design tactics associated with clever advertising or DM executions but the lasting value of design communication comes at a strategic level. In the Kermedecs example, a strategic design approach to the communication challenge drove the tactical executions, audience behaviours and the actions that delivered this fantastic result.”

The sanctuary will cover 620,000 square kilometres, home to a significant number of threatened and endangered animals including whales, sharks, turtles and large ocean fish such as tuna, sunfish and marlin. Recreational fishing, fishing related tourism, oil, gas and mineral prospecting, exploration and mining will be prohibited in the area.