In the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC), salmon are a keystone species. Providing countless health benefits to the ecological well being of the West Coast, the Pacific salmon serve as a key food source for many within the ecosystem, and help facilitate the cycle of nutrients from the ocean to freshwater streams. However, this could soon change. As of 2022, factors like climate change and development are posing a dire threat to the sustainability of the salmon population - which in turn could prove a major crisis for the entire region.
To help raise awareness of both the importance of salmon and the significance of this issue, the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) has enlisted a new spokesperson… one with an incredible knowledge of salmon, to the point that he may be the world’s leading expert. This of course refers to the one and only ‘Mr. Brown’, a walking, talking brown bear. Developed in conjunction with TAXI Vancouver, the new hire comes as part of the first campaign between TAXI and the PSF. Featured in both a 30-second and six-second spot which showcase Mr. Brown’s interview and taking calls on the helpline respectively, the new creative acts as the introduction to PSF’s new ‘spokesbear’, with the intention being for Mr. Brown to remain in the public eye for many years to come.
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with the TAXI Vancouver team, including managing director Jackie Pearl, ECD James Sadler, senior strategist Brian Tang, senior integrated producer Scott Polzen and senior writer Michael Houldsworth, as well as PSF VP development, marketing and communications Allison Colina to learn more about how Mr. Brown came to be, and the threats facing the Pacific salmon population.
LBB> This marks the first campaign from the Pacific Salmon Foundation/TAXI duo. As such, what was the brief, and how did it lead to the introduction of ‘Mr. Brown’?
Brian> The Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) has a rich history of saving and restoring wild Pacific salmon populations in British Columbia (BC) and the Yukon, and is known as a key contributor, collaborator, and partner within the non-profit and conservation world. But with salmon populations rapidly depleting, the PSF needed to take a more active role in driving research, creating programs and initiatives, and helping people realise the need to bring salmon back. So, we were tasked with developing a campaign that would educate, delight, and engage British Columbians on the topic of salmon. And since this campaign came off the heels of a rebrand we helped conduct, it also served as a way of reintroducing the PSF to its donors, partners, and British Columbians.
Allison> This campaign marks a big step for the PSF - introducing ourselves to British Columbians at a time when more than half of Pacific salmon populations are declining. With the growing impacts of climate change, now is the time to increase our research and recovery efforts to help restore Pacific salmon populations, and to do that, we need the public’s support.
Mr. Brown is the result of brand work and campaign development with the incredibly creative team at TAXI. Together, we knew we wanted to connect with people in a warm, positive and engaging way, and who better to speak on behalf of salmon than a brown bear!? Mr. Brown helps connect salmon to the broader ecological context they uphold in BC.
LBB> Tell us more about this! What threats are being posed toward the Pacific salmon population, and why was the introduction of Mr. Brown the right approach for your organisation?
Allison> The biggest threat that Pacific salmon populations face is climate change, compounded by the impacts of development. But, while climate change is a big issue we must tackle across many fronts, we can help salmon adapt now by restoring vital freshwater habitats, mitigating risks to sensitive habitat, and removing risk factors such as open net pen fish farms.
In terms of approach, it was important to the PSF to reinforce the social and ecological value of salmon in BC. Salmon are considered a ‘keystone’ species, and through Mr. Brown’s voice, the public is reminded just how valuable salmon are to so many animals and our forests - all of which truly depend on them.
LBB> Given that salmon are a vital part of the BC ecosystem, were non-bear options ever considered? Or was having a bear as a spokesperson the first and only idea needed?
James> We wanted a spokesperson that could truly relate to the impact of salmon decline. We looked at salmon, obviously, as well as regular people. Each person in BC has a connection to salmon - whether it’s eating, fishing, culture, history, or just living here and having salmon provide nutrients for our wildlife and forests. And that just led us to bears. Their survival is linked to salmon and because of their popularity in BC, it meant we had a spokesperson or ‘spokescreature’ that people cared about or could relate to. And we loved the irony in having a bear understand and convey the importance of salmon for BC’s ecosystem.
LBB> Mr. Brown will be serving as the PSF’s 'spokesbear' for many years to come. Did this intention to make him a long-lasting figurehead factor into the way you wrote and designed him?
Jackie> Yes! Brown bears are a prominent, easily recognisable species in BC and the Yukon, and we wanted to make sure that Mr. Brown would resonate and be memorable to people today and for generations to come.
LBB> The spots are directed by Sebastian Hill-Esbrand. What made him the right person for the job?
James> Sebastian was interning with us at the time, and at TAXI, we’re fully invested in making sure the next generation are given real opportunities to learn and be successful during their tenure here, so he was always a part of the process. Because of that, Sebastian had this incredible vision of how Mr. Brown should be portrayed. He understood the nuance of how to get humour across without losing sight of how serious and important the cause and conversation were. That was a delicate balance, and Sebastian knew how to walk the line.
LBB> Let’s talk about the bear himself! What did it take to put Mr. Brown into the spots?
Scott> As with everything in advertising, it’s a team effort and Mr. Brown was no different. He’s actually an animatronic wonder. Mr. Brown comes with his own handler and there was a person inside the entire time. But the suit got extremely hot to wear and required multiple breaks so that the actor could cool down. It was quite something to be a part of!
LBB> Who provides the voice of the bear? What was casting like, and what made you choose the person you did?
Michael> Casting for the bear was unique. We wanted someone who could really take the script and infuse bits of warmth and humour into the voice of Mr. Brown. We heard over 20 voices, but Emmett Hall really delivered. He’s well-known for his improv acting in town, and it was magical to hear him and Murmur’s creative director, Roger Harris, bring Mr. Brown’s voice to life.
LBB> Having a bear interview for a job at the PSF, before ending up taking calls are entertaining concepts! What was the writing process like, and how did you come up with these ideas?
Michael> For a campaign like this, the writing process is fun. We drew inspiration by putting ourselves in the shoes of what a typical person would do if he or she worked at the PSF. Of course, Mr. Brown would be soliciting people because he cares about salmon and wants them to donate to a great cause.
LBB> Who did you cast to act opposite Mr. Brown, and what made her the right person for the job?
Michael> Opposite Mr. Brown, we cast Cassandra Bourchier. We wanted someone who exudes that old school interview vibe and Cassandra brought her own spin on things. You can see the subtle looks and movements she gives early on as she’s interviewing Mr. Brown, and it was those little things that just made her the perfect person to play opposite him. She found a way to bring in those mannerisms or actions we’d all have interviewing Mr. Brown - initially sceptical, a bit terrified, but eventually, coming around and realising he’s the perfect fit.
LBB> Incorporating the key message into a six-second spot would have been a big challenge. How did you go about ensuring the shorter ad would carry the same weight as the 30-second version?
James> This is a challenge we all face in this industry: attention spans are short. The key is maximising the environment you create so that you can capture these little vignettes such as Mr. Brown making phone calls to carry the message.
LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project? How did you overcome them?
James> BC had been experiencing a period of drought as we were producing this. What that did was it greatly impacted the salmon and their spawning grounds, especially since many species were expected to have a bumper year. The easy decision might have been to push this out sooner, so people could learn about and donate to the PSF at such a crucial time. But, the thing about the PSF is that they’re salmon first, salmon always. It’s a true testament to their commitment and passion for salmon restoration that we actually delayed the launch so their team could focus on dealing with the droughts and find ways to immediately help their partners and help salmon.
Allison> We are incredibly grateful to the team at TAXI, production and media partners for their commitment to the cause, and for helping to create an impactful campaign that has broad reach. The commitment of our partners helped to overcome resource challenges to ensure Mr. Brown came to life in a way that connects with so many people and helps increase awareness for the issues facing Pacific salmon.
LBB> Since its launch in October, how have people reacted to the campaign? Are people loving Mr. Brown?
James> Mr. Brown and the campaign have been a hit with the PSF, with our team, and overall, people seem to be reacting positively to it. It’s easy to paint a picture of how dire things are (and they are for salmon), but that’s a pitfall within the non-profit and conservation space that we knew we wanted to avoid. We know that humour works to connect with people, and having a bit of lightness is something that we all need right now.
Allison> Mr. Brown has had a truly positive, heartwarming response from both current PSF supporters and new! Climate change and the impacts on salmon and their habitats is serious, and with the extreme weather events we’ve experienced here in BC, it’s top of mind for so many. What we’ve heard from supporters and the public is that Mr. Brown offers a bright moment of levity, it brings a smile to people, all while reminding them that there’s serious work to be done to help salmon recover.
LBB> A campaign like this is very important, as it stands to challenge a big ecological problem. What did being involved in this project mean to you?
James> Everyone who worked on the campaign is so proud of it. That isn’t just because it’s a great ad, but because it’s for a great organisation in the PSF, and a great cause in protecting and restoring the Pacific salmon population.
The reason why our province is so lush and beautiful is because of salmon. The reason why the animals in this province can thrive is because of salmon. But, like the climate crisis, the declining salmon population isn’t just an ecological or environmental problem - it’s a problem for people too, regardless of age, background, history, culture, etc. Losing salmon doesn’t just affect anglers or conservationists or Indigenous people. It impacts us all. Every person in the province is connected to salmon in some way just by living here.
LBB> What should Canadians know about the PSF, and what can they do to support you?
Allison> The Pacific Salmon Foundation is salmon first, salmon always. Our expert teams are working across the salmon life cycle with incredible partners and community members across the province to carry out research, compile vital data to inform salmon recovery efforts, and to conserve salmon populations for generations to come. We never go it alone, and with the public’s support, we can help save and restore salmon.
LBB> Is there anything you’d like to tell Canadians about preserving the ecosystem - specifically the salmon - in BC?
Allison> Salmon are vital to our freshwater and marine ecosystems in BC. They nourish forests and incredible species such as eagles, bears and orcas. By conserving Pacific salmon in BC, we protect communities, culture and entire ecosystems that depend on them. We all need salmon. To learn more, we invite you to visit psf.ca