Greenpeace on ‘policing’ the world’s biggest brands and what marketers can learn from its unconventional advertising

Brands that don’t match words with deeds when it comes to their impact on society face the threat of vigilante justice, with Greenpeace having forced brands such as Tesco, Lego and Waitrose to change their ways over recent years.

It’s fair to say Greenpeace has a very different way of measuring success from most brands. While many rely on likes, views or sales when justifying ad spend, the environmental charity is more concerned about policing “phony” corporate social responsibility (CSR) messages, according to its UK head of creative Mel Evans.

Over recent years, this has perhaps best been reflected by Greenpeace’s disruptive ‘Lego: Everything is Not Awesome’ ad created by Don’t Panic in 2014. It forced an end to Lego’s controversial partnership with Shell that was worth a reported £68m and stretched back to the 1960s.

Using Lego figurines, including polar bears, the Cannes Lion-winning ad showed the damage Shell’s oil drilling is causing the Arctic. And the fact it secured nearly 700,000 petition signatures and eight million YouTube views contributed to Lego ending its Shell partnership within three months of the ad airing.

“It was important Shell didn’t have massive global partners to clean up its public image,” Evans explains. “Lego is committed to using 100% renewable energy and phasing out petrol products in production so why was it partnering with Shell? We felt we had a responsibility to step in.”

Legos’ response at the time of the campaign was to argue that Greenpeace’s complaints should have been directed at Shell alone, rather than using the Lego brand to “target Shell”.

Confronting brands’ ‘lies’

Greenpeace successfully attacked Shell’s partnership with Lego

Social purpose and its now outdated predecessor CSR (see cover story, page 14) have made big contributions to brands finances. A ‘meaningful’ brand has a 46% higher ‘share of wallet’ than a less meaningful one, according to Havas’ Meaningful Brands report last year. But not every brand claim can be trusted. Pointing to the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, Evans says many global brands are “lying” to the public with their pledges about sustainable practices. Greenpeace’s role, she says, is to “police” them.

“The public is being undermined by big brands lying to them. It is a real concern as it undermines people’s sense that alternatives [to fossil fuels] are actually possible,” she explains.

Evans says a Greenpeace campaign could last up to three months, as in the case of Lego, or as little as three hours and 20 minutes.

“That’s how long it took Waitrose to cave and make a statement after we attacked them for selling John West tuna,” she clarifies. “Had either Lego or Waitrose taken longer, we would have developed their campaigns further, but we didn’t have to.”

Having committed five years ago to source 100% sustainable tuna by the end of 2015, John West still catches 98% of its tuna using “destructive” methods that also kill other species, according to Greenpeace. And its ongoing anti-John West campaign has already seen Tesco and Waitrose pledge to stop stocking the brand if it doesn’t change its ways. Following Greenpeace’s criticism, John West claimed last October that it was still committed to its pledge.

Evans jokes: “Sometimes we have sweepstakes on how long it will take for a brand to cave to the pressure. Ultimately, you have to make brands aware that you won’t go away. A campaign could last a few hours or five years, it’s not up to us, it’s up to them.”

A strategy for change

Greenpeace has spoofed Game of Thrones as part of its ‘Save The Arctic’ awareness campaign

This year, Greenpeace will continue with variations on its successful Save The Arctic campaign, which now has nearly 10 million petition signatures. It is considering launching ads mockingly depicting John West changing the contents of its tuna cans to dolphins. And in the coming months, a local campaign raising awareness of air pollution in London will also debut that will evolve across the UK on a city-by-city basis.

In particular, Evans gets excited about the concept of virtual reality. Greenpeace is currently testing out VR and she is confident the technology can help it overcome one of its biggest hurdles.

“It can be a big problem trying to make people truly feel something for concepts they can’t see like global warming or environments they’ll probably never visit like the Arctic. VR can put people into that world and get them to feel emotions for somewhere on the other side of the planet. It is a very compelling thing for Greenpeace and we’ve got a VR experience coming for the Arctic and another for the rain forests.”

Evans also says more conventional brands can learn a lot from the way Greenpeace approaches marketing.

Whether it uses Radiohead to score ‘homeless’ bears or features a Lego version of Game of Thrones’ character Jon Snow (see above), Greenpeace’s ads always maintain a dramatic touch. And Evans, who says spending more on cinematic campaigns is a winning tactic, advises marketers to reject words such as ‘advertising’ altogether.

“For us it is about thinking about how can we creative this emotive, powerful feeling for a place or concept many people don’t know about enough for them to want to protect it. If a video has a big cinematic feel and an atmospheric song you can transport people to a place they can’t necessarily visualise. In our sector we wouldn’t necessarily use the word advertising. It should be about having a strategy for change.”

Greenpeace also prioritises social media and digital over above-the-line spend – a decision that ensures flexibility.

Evans advises: “There are so many forms of film at your disposal on social channels. You could be straight, newsy, wacky, creative or even use animation. You can react to the world.

“TV ads are a much stricter form so there are perhaps more advantages to digital marketing.”

Mel Evans, head of creative & editorial at Greenpeace UK

Ultimately, Evans says marketing success for Greenpeace is all about honesty: “People want to see these big businesses held to account and keeping to their word. That’s our role. Achieving real societal change is how we judge a great Greenpeace campaign.”

So if you’re planning to put social purpose at the heart of your brand, then keep to your word or you might just get a knock on the door from Greenpeace.



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