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17 Projections: Guerrilla SDG marketing in Germany

Germany’s Engagement Global agency projected SDG messages onto prominent buildings and objects in big cities, fusing physical with digital campaigning.

This is a guest post by Christian Maria Mäntele, Head of the #17Ziele Project at Engagement Global, a German service agency working on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development to engage civil society on issues of development co-operation.


Reaching young people is always a challenge. Like every young generation before, today’s youth have their own forms and codes of communication that differ from established ones. So, what to do if you cannot reach your target group via traditional media? Well, a bit of guerrilla marketing tactics could do the job. That is what our team at Engagement Global had in mind when we set out on a trip across Germany to sneak into young people’s line of sight.

We found a large beamer, drove to prominent locations in four major German cities – Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt – and waited for nightfall. As the distractions of the day gave way to darkness, passers-by looked up and saw messages beamed in the bright colours of the SDG logo. However, the projections were not only designed for accidental bystanders: they were photographed and shared on social media by popular influencers. This is where they reached their intended audience of young people.

We chose one building or object for each of the 17 goals and used surprising or provocative messages. For example, as an allusion to Goal 10 (“Reduced inequalities”), here is what we projected onto the Frankfurt Stock Exchange: “We are living in a rich country. Tell that to the poor.” For Goal 13 (“Climate action”), we beamed the following message onto a coal-fired power plant in huge letters: “Anything but cool: Our climate.”

17 Live Projections – a Digital Stunt for a Better World

We made deliberate associations with street art, graffiti and youth culture, and chose to cover the project on social media only. We picked Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Instagram is particularly popular with teenagers and young adults in Germany, Facebook and Twitter seemed suitable to extend the reach of the campaign to a slightly older audience. To prepare the social media activities, we approached independent influencers and organisations in advance – activists like Micha Fritz (@michafritz), who campaigns for clean water, or Raul Krauthausen (@raulde), who speaks up for the rights of people with disabilities. The idea was to reach a young urban audience on their preferred channels of communication, and to inspire subsequent social media interaction. Many of our target group will already have been aware of sustainable development issues through the “Fridays for Future” movement but may not yet know about the SDGs.

The project is an example of how to reach a specific target group by combining offline events and online campaigns. Each projection was tagged with “#17Ziele” (“ziele” being German for “goals”), which is the hashtag for our ongoing campaign aiming to promote SDG awareness among younger citizens. After its initial release by influencers, we also presented the project on our social media channels and website.

On influencer channels and Engagement Global’s own social media feeds combined, the campaign generated 2.4 million impressions. The age group between 13 and 17 was most strongly represented, followed by those aged between 18 and 24. The extent to which the target group felt inspired to follow up on social media is still difficult to assess. We had our most positive results on Instagram, which is not surprising for a project with a strong visual focus.

Although German society has traditionally been open to environmental and development issues, raising public awareness of the SDGs is not a matter of course in Germany. Public discourse often revolves around cloudy concepts of sustainability and development. The SDGs could provide an ideal framework to communicate practical concepts and thus mobilize people. But the results of the Global Survey on Sustainability and the SDGs, which was financed by the German Ministry for the Environment and published this year, suggest that the German population is less well informed about the goals than people in many other countries. According to the survey, the SDGs were a concept to only 46% of the survey participants – which is below average in an international comparison. As the survey favoured participants with higher education, who are more likely to be informed about the goals, awareness within society at large is probably even lower.

At the same time, the German government attaches great importance to mobilising civil society to achieve the goals. The Sustainable Development Strategy of the German Government is developed in systematic cooperation with actors of civil society. The strategy document explicitly states participation of young people to be an objective in that process. In connection with the ongoing revision for 2020, citizens were invited to participate in conferences or to send in proposals.

This approach corresponds to the objectives laid down in the 2016 Voluntary National Review, which emphasizes the continuous involvement of civil society groups and initiatives to “mobilise civil society engagement” and “make the goals part of society’s narratives”.

The great popularity of the Fridays for Future movement in Germany suggests that younger generations in particular could help carry forward the SDG commitment. Initiatives such as the “17 Projections”, which are precisely tailored to this group in terms of content and form, could be a great way forward for SDG communicators.

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