How to see the trees in one easy step: name the forest!

Branding is about calling attention to the important stuff.

The old expression “can’t see the forest for the trees”, stomach describes a handicap many of us suffer in business – and life: we often focus so hard on tiny details we miss the bigger picture. But what about when you can’t even see the forest because you’ve trained yourself to ignore the trees? Sometimes a well-placed name might be just what you need…

Meet the tree I can’t ignore (but do all the time)

In our back yard, we have a tree. Not just any tree: a monster seven-story oak tree with a four-foot wide trunk. That’s it in the picture above. Now you’d think that it would be pretty tough  to ignore such a huge living thing that shares your small back yard. And you’d be right. Partially.

In the big picture, it’s hard to ignore the impact of that tree in our yard:

  • It casts a huge shadow that renders all my attempts at gardening anything but ferns and shade plants absolutely futile.
  • Over the last 60 years, it has been involved in a wrestling match with the back wall of my garage, and as you can see, the garage is losing badly.
  • It hogs the back corner of my lot and severely limits the kinds of renovations we can consider.
  • It’s too tall to climb, and pruning it costs thousands of dollars.

But when you get right down to it, over time any feature of your personal landscape – even a monster tree like this one – becomes very easy to ignore. It becomes invisible the more you live with it. You learn to forget. And working around it becomes second nature.

And isn’t that true for all kinds of obstacles and features of our business lives as well? We talk about the “elephants in the room” that are invisible to us, but are so painfully obvious to outsiders.

But then I saw the forest

A neighbour of mine named Daniel Buckles, who is more active in green issues than I am, helped me notice my tree again by introducing me to the forest. Turns out our tree is a native bur oak, the remnant of an ancient oak forest that used to cover our area of Ottawa. And it’s not alone. Scattered throughout the neighbourhood are a couple dozen other oaks like it, all more than a century old. And ours is the biggest, and among the few that are more than a metre in diameter and estimated to be more than 150 years old.

In other words, those oldest trees are far older than our neighbourhood, possibly older than the city of Ottawa, and certainly older than Canada. Our tree was already around a century old when our hose was built in the 1950’s.

The miracle is this: the developers respected that forest enough to build the neighbourhood around the trees!

And the sad fact is that most people don’t care. Particularly not the developers who are cutting down more and more of these giants every year – including the one who has just applied to cut down the second largest tree to make room for a cookie-cutter infill project.

To that developer, that magnificent tree is at best invisible as they imagine what they can do with the property, at worst, an obstacle to be removed as soon as possible and chopped up for firewood – an obscene amount of high quality firewood.

Enter the brand

In brainstorming what we could do to draw attention to the plight of this tree, we considered doing all the usual stuff: articles in the community newsletter, petitions, educational displays at community events, maybe a Web site, and of course, fighting at city hall to have the permit denied.

But it all felt pretty hollow and futile, like a losing battle. Because in the end we were just talking about one tree, and trying to get people to see the connection between that tree and others like it – which were after all, just individual trees that all of us ignore every day.

That’s why the branding guy in the group kicked into gear and recommended that the first thing our group needed to do was to start calling these trees “The Champlain Oaks” to reflect the location (in the Champlain Park area of Ottawa) and the heritage (connecting them to the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who paddled by here in his exploration of eastern Canada) of these trees.

From there it was easy for me to register the domain and set up our blog at to start telling the story of these trees and to rally support for protecting them.

It’s not a brilliant, earth-changing name. Quite the opposite. It’s a sensible down-to-earth name that seems like it’s been around a long time. And suddenly, we’re not just fighting the abstract battle of a nameless collection of oak trees. We’ve created a forest in the brains of people who hear the name and talk about the Champlain Oaks.

Think about that. The difference between me saying “I have a big oak tree in my yard” and “I have one of the Champlain Oaks in my yard.” Which one sounds more important, more special, more worthy of protection?

That’s the power of smart branding

By taking a careful look at your landscape, learning to see the trees AND the forest, and deciding out what’s worth celebrating with an intelligently chosen name followed by a smart communications campaign, you can not just call more attention to your cause, your product, or even your favourite group of trees, you can change the conversation.

( Note: if you are interested in the Champlain Oaks project, or want to join us in our fight to save as many of these trees as we can, please visit the site or contact us.)

3 thoughts on “How to see the trees in one easy step: name the forest!”

  1. I love this post. It really brings in the application of good marketing and branding into the everyday.

    It’s a little sad that no matter how good your cause is, you’re still competing for attention against the Coca-Cola’s and Kanye Wests of the world.

    I really like the way you amplified the personality of the cause and didn’t just come up with an attention-grabber.


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