Bilby vs Bunny: are conservationists losing the fight for Easter?

Diogo Veríssimo

About this time every year, people across the world get a soft spot for the Easter bunny. After all who could possible dislike the Easter equivalent of Santa Claus? Yet, in Australia, conservationists have been working for decades to overthrow this cuddly symbol of Easter. Why? Because in Australia rabbits are invasive species, responsible for massive environmental and agricultural damage. But can one of the most popular animal representations in the world be replaced?

The history of the Easter bunny seems to have originated in what is today Germany, about 500 years ago. At that time, multiple animals where associated with Easter, such as foxes and chickens. But in the last five centuries, the Easter bunny has slowly wedged out all competition, becoming the leading Easter symbol. However, in Australia, this endearing association between Easter and the bunny is seen as an obstacle to societal support for programs to control rabbit populations, a critical part of conserving Australia’s native wildlife. So, some Australian conservationists decided to come-up with their own Easter mascot: the Easter bilby!

The greater bilby (© Save the Bilby Fund)
The greater bilby (© Save the Bilby Fund)

The greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis) is a small mammal endemic to Australia, currently threatened with extinction. A smaller species, the lesser bilby, is thought to be extinct (with rabbits being one of the culprits). For that reason, the greater bilby is today more commonly known as simply bilby.

The idea of replacing the Easter bunny with the Easter bilby had its origin around the mid-1980s. Yet, it was not until a few years later that the idea took off, with the support of the organization now known as Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia (RFA). In 1993, the RFA obtained the rights to the Easter Bilby trademark, ensuring it would accrue a percentage of the sales of any product containing this brand. Given the Easter focus of the brand, a big part of the sales was Easter chocolate. This link between the bilby and Easter was soon explored by multiple Australian NGOs, using a variety of models. The Save the Bilby Fund, for example, worked with several chocolate makers that donated some of their proceeds to support bilby conservation. These efforts made the bilby the face of the fight for Australia’s unique natural heritage, which explains why this species is the only Australian animal to have an official day (the second Sunday of September).

Yet, we know from commercial marketing that launching a new brand is very tricky, with most new brands failing after a short time. To succeed, the awareness of the brand amongst customers has to remain high for a sustained period of time. We know that this is particularly the case when the new brand has to compete with a very dominant contender, such as the Easter bunny. This was going to be an uphill struggle, as other conservationists had previously found during their efforts to rebrand the African wild dog from feral to exotic. These difficulties are confirmed by a look at the salience of both the Easter bilby and Easter bunny in major Australian newspapers over the last three decades. Despite an initial spike, the Easter bilby was never quite a match for the long established bunny. This trend was mirrored by data on Google searches in Australia, with the bilby as a species loosing saliency over the years.

A - Media salience of the “bilby”, “Easter bilby” and “Easter bunny”, from 1985 to 2016, as measured by the yearly proportion of articles in Australian newspapers that mentioned those concepts.  B - Mean yearly Google search volume for “bilby”, “Easter bilby” and “Easter bunny” from 2004 to 2016, with standard errors.
A - Media salience of the “bilby”, “Easter bilby” and “Easter bunny”, from 1985 to 2016, as measured by the yearly proportion of articles in Australian newspapers that mentioned those concepts.  B - Mean yearly Google search volume for “bilby”, “Easter bilby” and “Easter bunny” from 2004 to 2016, with standard errors.

These trends can be explained by the changes in the Australian chocolate industry over the years. Chocolate Easter bilbies seem to be doing well with premium market segments, as shown by an increase in donations from companies such as Haigh’s. However, the bilbies have quickly been losing ground when it comes to the mainstream chocolate market. In 2012 Darrell Lea, the largest chocolate makers to support the Easter bilby cause, faced severe financial troubles and decided to stop making chocolate bilbies. While smaller producers stepped in to try and fill the gap, this reduced the visibility of the Easter bilby in the eyes of most consumers. This year Cadbury’s, the largest chocolate manufacturer in Australia, decided to discontinue their Easter bilby production allegedly due to low sales. This is yet another blow to the Easter bilby brand.

It is clear that the Easter bilby is losing the fight for Easter. Maintaining the brand alive in the mind of Australians will require cooperation between the organizations using the brand. This will help ensure standardization of the aesthetics and messaging associated with it - a key step to ensure better chances of making sure that the Easter bilby stays at the top of people’s minds. It will also require a more integrated approach to taking the bilby beyond chocolates and weaving the concept into the fabric of the Australian Easter season. Otherwise, the Easter bilby risks becoming a niche brand, too small to gather the support needed for the herculean task of conserving the wildlife of Australia - the country with the most recent mammal extinctions in the world.

 

This blog post is based on the article: Veríssimo, D. 2017. The Easter Bilby as a counter-marketing strategy for biodiversity conservation. Revista de Gestão dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, 16 (3), 59-72.