Evolved roadside signs

Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 2m 29s)

Bobby Ramirez he never said nothin'
Six months later I left the line
I drifted to the central valley
And took what work I could find
At night I searched the local bars
And the migrant towns
Lookin' for my Louisa
With the black hair fallin' down

--"The Line", Bruce Springsteen

The California Central Valley has learned a fundamental marketing lesson, and it's been beautiful to watch.

I'm not sure who puts up those big roadside signs about the area's need for water, but they've been doing it for a while now; at least 7 years, probably more.

The signs aren't homemade or hand-painted. They're big enough to easily see from the highway; probably around 8 by 10 feet in size. So there's a certain professional yet grassroots quality to this campaign.

If you're not a Californian or aware of the situation there, the main piece of context you need to understand is that water is something that folks in California (the entire West, really) argue over. Who should get what share of a limited amount of water? What should they be allowed to use it for? What's a good vs. wasteful usage of water in the first place? Should its usage be regulated at all? Questions like that become arguments which become tribes which become factions which become sides in a war.

The Central Valley is an important agricultural area. Wikipedia says: "It is California's single most productive agricultural region and one of the most productive in the world, providing more than half of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the United States. More than 7 million acres (28,000 km2) of the valley are irrigated via an extensive system of reservoirs and canals."

7 years or so ago, the roadside signs you saw in the Central valley looked a lot like this:

(The photo's not mine, it comes from this informative article: www.kqed.org/bayareabites/96228/who-is-behind-those-water-signs-on-the-i-5)

On my most recent trip through part of the Central Valley, I didn't see a single sign like the one above (let's call those the "old style signs"). There might be some further south of Bakersfield, where we turned left and climbed out of the valley, but I saw none north of there.

I tried to snap a picture of the new style signs, but wasn't fast enough on the draw. I found one online for you anyway:

Here's another similar one:

So as you look at the old vs. new style signs, what do you notice?

Here's what I see: me-focused vs. you/us-focused.

It's remarkable, really. The old style signs have a sort of "don't tread on me/woe is me/how dare you/this is your fault" kind of tone to them. A tone of attack and defense and hurt and blame.

The new style signs have zeroed in on an interest the passerby can identify with. Speaking from the perspective of those who created the signs, it's not about me, it's about you and us. It's not about us vs. you, it's about us. It's a tone of empathy and connection and shared purpose.

The clear implication of the new style signs is: "You like to eat, right? So do I! So do all humans!! Let's be fair about using this shared resource to meet our shared needs. It's inarguable that water is needed to grow food, so let's not argue about water from an irrational place, instead let's shift the discussion to ways to rationally allocate this semi-scarce resource."

Earlier I said this is remarkable because it's an evolution, rather than a devolution, which feels rare in today's political environment. I don't know if the underlying debate has evolved, but the roadside messaging about it really has. It's shifted from a message about power to a very empathetic message. To me, this is tremendously hopeful.

Remember: your marketing is not about you. It's about those you seek to connect and build trust with.