Celebrating a centennial by keeping in step with the times

Last year the National Parks System attracted 305,000,000 people. That’s more visitors than Disney theme parks, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NASCAR combined. And this year is looking even better. You have to admit – for a government agency to pull these kind of numbers, it’s pretty impressive.
How does a 100-year-old organization maintain its edge after all these years?

By doing what it always has. The National Park System (NPS) was founded in 1916, in part, as a way to ensure unbridled wilderness would be there long into the future. This vision appealed to the adventurers of the time, as it continues to appeal to the adventurers of today. So how is the NPS sharing their mission and luring the young folks in?

Elevating the art

Before the NPS was established, 19th century painters, writers, and poets cast a vision of the American West that created an undeniable urge to travel westward. Fostering this relationship with the arts after the national parks’ founding ensured all of America would eventually be enamored with the parks’ beauty and grandeur.

From Ansel Adams’ stark black-and-white photos of Yosemite to the folk stylings of the WPA-era posters, these images inspired generations of travelers to seek their own adventures in the national parks.

This trend continues today in the national parks’ more than 50 Artists-in-Residence programs. By dedicating resources to these artists and sharing their work with the public, the NPS demonstrates its appreciation of art, and acknowledges its role in attracting and educating future visitors. In further commitment to the arts, the NPS recently posted a job opening for a full-time national parks photographer (dubbed the search for the “New Ansel Adams”). In addition to generating quite a bit of buzz and thousands of applicants, moves like this help strengthen the park’s legacy. Heritage like this is something you can’t get from marketing alone, and it just so happens, something millennials are pretty wild about.

Aligning with influencers

While visitors overall are on the incline, the NPS has struggled to attract younger and more diverse audiences – something the parks see as essential to its continued success.

“If we don’t reach out and become relevant to a broader population, we won’t have the support the parks need to do their jobs in the future,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell

Recent efforts from the National Park Foundation have begun to address this problem through corporate and celebrity sponsorships, a tactic which is extremely influential with Gen Y. On their recently launched, short videos featuring everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Nye and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, relate the impact the parks have on their own lives, and the importance of keeping them around for future generations.

Finding the right partners

In addition to celebrity partnerships, corporate sponsorships of the NPS are also blossoming. And while there is an ethical debate over the presence of corporate sponsorship in the parks, partnerships outside the parks have proven to be very beneficial. American Express, Coleman, REI, Disney and others are introducing the national parks to new users and re-establishing connections to those who have visited the past.

For example, REI Co-op, an outdoor retailer dedicated to “inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship” has been a large part of the national parks’ centennial, and a great example of how to do sponsorship right. The co-branded products are useful, beautiful, and well crafted. Better still? 10% of the proceeds from all park-branded merchandise will be donated to the NPS.

By partnering with organizations that have common goals, NPS has benefited the parks as well as the public.

Disney is also on board to introduce the national parks to a generation of kids who haven’t experienced the wonder of the parks. They’ve signed up as the National Park Foundation’s primary partner in the Open Outdoors for Kids program, which offered every 4th grader in America a free pass to the parks for the 2015-2016 school year.

With a goal of getting 1 million new kids to the parks, the NPS is leveraging Disney’s star power to “ignite kids’ imaginations through nature exploration and help them develop lifelong conservation values.” A positive experience in this age group will create lifelong fans.

Forging your vision

To drive results like the NPS, every promotional move you make has to stem from vision and mission. What’s your vision, or that of your company? If everything you say, and everything you do aligns with that, you can get here too. Is your vision a little muddy? It’s never too late to gain clarity around it and set strong goals for the future.
While the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is today.