According to a recent poll cited in Newsweek, the number of Americans who believe that global warming is caused by human activity is 36%. That’s down from 47% just a year ago. Only 57% of Americans believe the world is warming at all, down from 71% a year ago. So what has changed? Have millions of Americans spent the last year studying the scientific evidence and changed their opinion? Or does the bad economy loom so large that environmental concerns have taken the back seat of the Prius? Supplanted by economic worries, environmental concerns have been relegated to a lower place on the list of national priorities, which are in essence the collective personal priorities of Americans concerned about job security and retirement. It’s obvious, and even predictable, that environmental concerns would diminish in a recession. But here’s the truly remarkable part: It has also diminished the intensity of belief in global warming. In other words, as a topic of public discourse wanes in importance, its believability suffers. The issue that once held a financially smug nation in its grip, and was making converts by the millions thanks to Al Gore and Co., has now lost its eco-mojo. It’s not only less important to folks—it’s become less credible. The lesson to marketers and communicators here is that you can only promote one most-important-thing. People—both individuals, and collectively as societies—can be expected to focus on just one most-important-thing at a time. That’s part of the reason healthcare reform is stalled and sputtering. If Maslov was right, there is a hierarchy of needs that allows concern for massive, academic, long-term issues like global warming only when unemployment is low and 401(k)s are secure. Healthcare reform fits somewhere in the middle between joblessness and climate change. A corollary to all this is that as economics worsen, there is a tendency for people to invest less time in academic exploration of issues, and instead seek out familiarity in previously held beliefs. The polarization of liberal and conservative news media in the US is evidence of a national dialog that is fractionalizing into two predictable monologs with no converts being made by either side. So just as every ad in every major magazine once promoted the advertiser’s environmental responsibility (that was so 18 months ago), now the message every company is trying to convey is their economic value in uncertain times. Well, in good times or bad, the edict that there is only one most-important-thing is a foundational principle of branding. You can’t be everything to everybody. Stand for one clear thing, leave the remaining turf to competitors, and be the best in your category. Sure you shift the benefit statements from time to time for relevance with your audience, but the core of the brand and your deliverable must remain rock solid. In fact, that kind of tenacity is usually rewarded in tough times when your competitors are shape-shifting with the latest trends.