When 'torturous poetry' isn't enough: why Sheba and AMV chose to build a coral reef

The Mars Petcare brand has focused its energies on marine conservation for several years.

Sheba: the newly grown reef is formed in the shape of the letters HOPE
Sheba: the newly grown reef is formed in the shape of the letters HOPE

Premium cat food brand Sheba is so committed to conservation that it built its own coral reef. Which is one hell of a mean feat when you think about it.

Off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia’s Spermonde Archipelago stands a living, thriving coral reef, planted on a site that was once barren, blasted out by fishermen using explosives to collect fish.

Viewable via Google Maps and Google Earth, the regrown reef is shaped to form the word “hope”, showcasing the brand’s commitment to the environment and sustainability.

Sheba’s Hope Grows campaign is in response to bleak predictions that if the world does nothing, 90% of its tropical reefs will be gone by 2043.

As well as affecting Tiddles’ dinner, this will have a negative impact on the nearly 500 million people who depend on coral reefs economically. Thus, by planting and growing this reef today, Sheba is actively helping to ensure more fish tomorrow.

Healthy coral reefs teem with diverse life and provide a vital ecosystem for underwater life – and with fish being at the top of Sheba’s menu, it’s something of a no-brainer that the brand wants to encourage a flourishing supply of them.

Since 1970, there has been an almost 70% decline on average in global populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, and one million animal and plant species are thought to be threatened with extinction. According to a report released by Defra in February, rainforests and coral reefs face tipping points beyond which they will be fundamentally altered in ways that could have “catastrophic consequences” for economies and well-being.

To date, the parent company of Sheba, Mars, has invested more than $10m in research, coral colony construction and community engagement as part of its restoration programme.

Love letter to the ocean

Sheba’s Hope Grows campaign was created by a collaboration between Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Mars Sustainable Solutions and the Sheba brand team. Key partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, Google and National Geographic Creative Works have helped bring it to life.

Alex Grieve, chief creative officer at AMV BBDO, told Campaign: "We wanted to do something like a love letter to the ocean. And at the beginning there was some slightly torturous poetry before we realised that if you really want to solve a problem, rather than talking about it you must have an appetite to try and act. We kept hold of the love letter idea but then we decided to just use letters, spelling out the word ‘hope’, built out of coral reef stars.”

Innovative coated structures known as reef stars were used in its construction, a man-made antidote to a man-made problem on the site, which was planted in August 2019.

The actual process of building the reef was slow and laborious, with the coronavirus pandemic creating extra logistical challenges by preventing the team from having access to monitor the growth of the structure.

Grieve said: “We were literally in the dark, asking ourselves is this working? Is it a success?"

He added: “Luckily we got some local divers to go down with GoPros and drones and they helped us see how it was getting on. And suddenly we could see it was thriving. Because we’d left it alone, time was doing its thing.”

The recent success of Netflix film Seaspiracy has increased public doubts about the idea of sustainable fishing, full stop. Made by the team behind the award-winning 2014 fim Cowspiracy, which was backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Seaspiracy makes the case that the only way to protect marine ecosystems in the long term is to stop commercial fishing altogether.

But while Grieve conceded changes must be made to commercial fishing, he argued that other steps, such as Sheba's initiative, still have an important role to play.

He said: "You can't suddenly click a switch and expect that kind of thing to stop. Coral reefs are damaged and they are not going to regenerate themselves. And if somone is stepping in to try and make them better, when you weigh everything up, that's a good thing."

In the three years since it was planted, coral growth on the Sheba Hope Grows reef has rocketed from 5% to 55%. And the brand plans to restore more than 185,000 square meters of coral reef globally by 2029.

Ten-year vision

Conservation is no flash in the pan for Mars, which made a commitment to use 100% sustainable fish a decade ago. Its most recent tracking puts the figure currently at 81%. While Mars still has work to do, this figure compares favourably to some other companies - for example in 2020, 69% of Nestle’s Purina fish and seafood pet products were responsibly sourced.

Jane Wakely, lead chief marketing officer at Mars, told Campaign: “We know that our consumers expect great-quality food for their pets but they also want a brand that makes a positive difference. Fish sustainability has always been at the heart of our programme.

“How do we reduce the pressure on fishing ecosystems? We have a commitment not to source any fish from the endangered species list and we’ve achieved that.

“And then from a scientific perspective it's not enough just to reduce, hence our commitment to also restore.

"We have a 10-year vision, and we have year-by-year tracking, so it's something we audit. If you really want to deliver a more balanced scorecard of performance, you have to measure it and hold yourself to account on your progress."

For those who want to monitor the progress of the reef, the brand has set up a dedicated YouTube channel, with all ad revenue generated donated to the Nature Conservancy for coral restoration.

The ad was created by Clark Edwards, Andre Hull, Mat Scholes, Pieter Rossouw, Ricardo Porto and Victor Bustani, and directed by Murray Butler through Framestore. Weareseventeen, The Glue Society, Indo Pacific Films, Flare Production, Make Me Pulse, W3 and King Henry also contributed to production.

The spot comes alongside a 17-minute long visual (directed by Paul Bruty through The Glue Society), which documents the growth process behind the words "hope grows" in the reef.

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