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“The ocean does something to your spirit,” an African-American woman from Charlotte, North Carolina volunteered during a focus group.

“It is about the only time that I am at peace, or if I am at church,” added a white man from Kansas City.


Communicating about ocean conservation can be extremely challenging given the vastness of the ocean and because the problems and solutions facing the ocean often involve complicated scientific processes and policy prescriptions. As a result, communications frequently portray ocean issues as abstract processes. In addition, they often fail to elicit a sense of awe or wonder or include emotionally compelling human stories.

In 2016, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and Wonder: Strategies for Good embarked on a five-year audience research and field-testing project. We saw the opportunity to build a stronger conservation movement that reflects the values, identities, lived experiences, and needs of all people.

Heartwired Insight and Strategy

In our research, we identified six heartwired ocean mindsets that describe how people experience and relate to the ocean in different ways. A person’s mindset is established over time based on how they are heartwired—their values, their beliefs, their lived experiences, and their identity.

For example, we identified the ‘All Senses’ mindset. For those with this pre-existing mindset, being in or near the ocean activates all the senses—their sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. The sight of the ocean takes their breath away. The sound of the waves calms them, helping them leave their worries behind. They tug off their shoes to feel their bare feet on the warm (or cool) sand. As they inch closer to the water, they breathe deeply to take in the smells of the ocean air. They may even be drawn to touch their hands to the water to taste the salt against their lips.

Having a deeper understanding of these mindsets will help advocates craft more effective messaging and storytelling strategies to persuade and activate audiences to take action. For instance, people with the ‘All Senses’ mindset will be motivated by messaging that vividly activates each of their senses—to remind them how they feel when they are in or near the ocean.

In our research, we developed and tested successful messaging strategies. One messaging strategy that proved to be successful is the use of the redemption frame. You may be familiar with moral frames, which more people have learned about thanks, in part, to cognitive linguist George Lakoff. According to Lakoff, “a frame is a conceptual structure used to think with.” Frames are pre-existing in people’s minds based on how they are heartwired and these frames help lead people to particular conclusions.

The redemption frame emphasizes that while people make mistakes, they are also capable of acknowledging and working to successfully overcome those mistakes. In the stories we tested, we described how people came together (including policymakers in a bipartisan manner) to forge effective solutions to ocean problems that humans had created—and how efforts by politicians, corporations, and others to undermine those solutions threaten the important progress that has been made.  

A useful example of the redemption frame can be found in a local news story about humpback whales returning to New York harbor. Importantly, this story highlights how polluted these waters became in the 1960s and 1970s, and the critical importance of the Clean Water Act to clean up those waters and bring back a fish called menhaden, which humpback whales feed on.


Advocates, who have begun putting the recommendations into action, are seeing signs of success.

For example, Corazón Latino engages Latino, Black, and Indigenous communities in conservation and climate action. They utilized Heartwired messaging to achieve exponential growth in their digital presence — by more than 25 times, from 1,300 to 35,000 social media followers — and empower ocean-lovers to take on-the-ground action by co-hosting coastal watershed cleanups in four locations that involved almost 1,500 volunteers and removed more than 13,000 pounds of trash across 243 miles of coastline.

After the Heartwired approach helped them see such extraordinary results, Corazón Latino says it is now “…an intrinsic part of our work.”

Similarly, The Ocean Project, which catalyzes and supports collaborative action for conservation in partnership with aquariums, zoos, museums, youth leaders, and others, collaborated with the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) to use the Heartwired approach to build support for Marine Protected Areas. 

They assisted four aquariums across the country — Aquarium of the Pacific, New England Aquarium, New York Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium — in implementing new, Heartwired messages in support of Marine Protected Areas in their presentations to more than 13,000 visitors. The aquariums also surveyed more than 1,200 visitors to test the efficacy of the messages. The survey results showed that only 45% of respondents reported they agreed with the statement, “before my visit today, I knew about marine protected areas,” while 84% of visitors reported they agreed with the statement, “during my visit today, I learned about Marine Protected Areas.” An astonishing 97% of respondents reported agreement or strong agreement with the statement “I support protecting special areas in our oceans and Great Lakes, much as we have done with national parks” after receiving presentations.

This research confirmed that aquariums and zoos offer a unique opportunity to engage the public in ocean conservation efforts, and that a short Heartwired message can be remarkably effective in increasing awareness and building support.

The results were particularly exciting for The Ocean Project, given the limited time they had to reach audiences, “…visitors received less than two minutes of messaging and the response was truly remarkable.” The organization found that talks and presentations at aquariums and zoos are a great way to reach an audience primed to embrace an Ocean mindset, particularly the Amazing Wildlife mindset, and build support for Marine Protected Areas.

Learn more about how organizations and leaders are putting Heartwired to Love the Ocean communications strategies in practice by downloading the guide.

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