What is "natural media"?

Milk paint campaign for Warner Brothers

Natural media is a term used to describe a portfolio of many techniques that are used to create communication messages. These techniques have one thing in common - they have a lower impact on the environment than traditional advertising media.

Most natural media techniques are alternatives to traditional outdoor advertising media that use paper, plastic films, vinyl and electricity (digital screens) which are printed and hung in poster frames or billboard frames. Traditional outdoor advertising media, with the exception of digital, generate staggering amounts of waste as most of the materials used cannot be recycled due to the high saturation of inks or the nature of the material itself. Most have an average life cycle of only 12 days and are either burned or dumped into landfills. 

Digital screens and LED billboards do not generate waste but they do consume a lot of electricity. A digital billboard consumes as much electricity as 20 to 25 average US households. Lighting 30,000 to 40,000 little LED lights requires energy but cooling those little lights with air conditioning units consumes even more energy. Digital screens are getting better and more energy efficient but they have a long way to go. Their greatest benefit is that nothing is being printed so they generate no waste - a step in the right direction.

Natural media techniques use water (reverse graffiti, clean advertising, water tagging), sand (sand printing), moss (moss advertising), Powder milk and lime stone (Milk paint advertising), chalk or lime (chalk advertising), grass sod (grass advertising) or nothing at all (sand stamping, snow stamping).

Natural media techniques are not perfect. They do generate waste and have a negative impact on the environment. Most techniques require a template of some sort or materials to mount plants on. They use adhesives and nylon screens. In order to execute campaigns, companies are driving in production units powered by fossil fuels. All business activities have a negative impact and no media can even come close to 100% Eco. However, they do have a much, much lower impact because they generate very little waste and most materials used are either biodegradable or can be recycled.

The natural media industry is a collection of companies who are dedicated to providing more sustainable alternatives for advertisers who strive to lower their environmental footprint but that is not their only advantages. Since natural media is not limited to media frames, it provides great creative flexibility. Images can be any size or shape. Messages that use several templates can have multiple layouts so they always look fresh and new attracting extra attention though the message stays the same. Natural media messages are highly targetable so advertisers can place fewer messages yet reach more of their target audience reducing advertising waste.  It is the single bullet approach as opposed to the traditional shotgun approach. 

When used as part of a larger communication strategy, the return on advertising investment is many times higher than traditional out door advertising. Often the media is part of the message. Campaigns can engage the audience and the best ones go from the physical location to the internet where they are not only be seen by many more consumers but can add value to brands for years and years as they circulate the internet. A good example of this is the "reverse graffiti project" created by Paul (Moose) Curtis of Symbollix for Greenworks which after 6 years is still being featured on blogs and in articles. Their return on investment at this point is hundreds if not thousands of times what they spent to produce it. 

Anything new can seem complex and one of the comments we hear often is that advertisers don't understand how the mediums can be used to their fullest potential or that finding companies to execute them can be time consuming or next to impossible. And they are right. In many ways the industry is a bit fractured. It uses many different names for the same techniques, few "networks" of locations are available and creatives are trained to work with the standard media and without understanding what they CAN do often just create a poster and place it on the ground.

This is why we started Natural Media Experts to help advertisers produce highly successful natural media campaigns easily. Not only do we promote the industry but we know the industry well having helped to establish it 7 years ago. We can "teach" creative departments how to use the media and for companies that prefer to work with a company that can just make it happen, we produce campaigns as well.

Natural media is an alternative with many competitive advantages to traditional outdoor advertising media. We are not out to kill traditional outdoor media. It plays an important role and quite honestly, natural media is more suited for foot and bike traffic not moving vehicles. It has it's limitations but when used in combination with other media channels, it can add great brand value and generate interesting and unique content that works to support campaigns that add value long after the campaign is over.

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Jim Bowes

Advertising professional specialising in Natural Media advertising techniques that have a low impact on the environment.