Is Greenpeace's Rebel Alliance coming for you next?

28 Jun 2011, 13:42

Whatever you think of Greenpeace's politics you have to admit they are peerless masters of the publicity stunt.

Over the past few years, the environmental group has developed a knack for pulling off the kind of multi-platform, high-impact campaigns that leave corporate giants squirming and marketing gurus green with envy.

The organisation still embarks on plenty of law-breaking direct interventions aimed at conventional carbon-intensive targets, such as its recent invasion and occupation of Cairn Energy's controversial Greenland drilling project. But it has also learned that humourous swipes at leading brands that simply fail to live up to environmental ideals are in many ways more effective at driving the development of sustainable corporate policies.

The tipping point arguably came with the NGO's high-profile and ultimately successful 2008 campaign against Apple, which saw the iconic electronics giant cave in to public pressure and adopt beefed up environmental commitments. Since then we've seen a spate of successful campaigns, including attacks on Nestle's use of palm oil in its Kit Kats, spoof ads highlighting Mattel's use of packaging for its Barbie dolls made from deforested Indonesian timber, and this morning's use of hijacked billboards and viral ads to target Volkswagen's dubious environmental record.

What is so impressive about these campaigns, besides the creative thinking that saw Ken dump Barbie because he doesn't "date girls that are into deforestation" and Storm Troopers marching through London in a spoof of VW's hugely successful Star Wars ad, is that they adhere so effectively to the golden rules of both campaigning and marketing.

The goals are both clear and achievable, the targets are carefully chosen to have the widest impact, and the campaigns themselves are powerful, funny and memorable, without ever slipping into the usual environmental preachiness. The gloriously irreverent viral ad parodying VW's famous Star Wars-inspired ad is a masterpiece that would make any 'Mad Man' proud.

There is also a clear pattern emerging that all high-profile blue chip firms need to be aware of. Greenpeace and many other NGOs are no longer simply targeting the worst environmental offenders and trying to shame them into reform. They have realised that the only way to combat climate change is to build a genuine low-carbon economy and have privately accepted it is arguably more important to encourage mainstream businesses to up their game as it is to bully the environmental laggards into action.

Many of the companies that Greenpeace has selected for the publicity stunt treatment in recent years are iconic brands that already have green policies in place and would like to regard themselves as good corporate citizens. But pointing to your latest CSR report as a defense against the NGO's allegations is no longer enough.

The group is not content with campaigns against companies that do nothing to address environmental problems, it also wants to target those firms that are doing something, but not quite doing enough.

There is also, in retrospect, an inevitability to these campaigns. Nestle's use of non-sustainable palm oil was always going to attract criticism eventually, while Greenpeace's setting of VW's modest recent improvements in fuel efficiency against the impressive gains of some of its competitors looks like an accident that was waiting to happen. Similarly, Mattel must have known its supplier Asia Pulp and Paper had long been the subject of criticism from green groups.

Most importantly, these campaigns work. Apple ultimately caved in and announced a significantly improved environmental policy, while Nestle quickly vowed to beef up its palm oil policy. Mattel is reportedly investigating the allegations it has indirectly contributed to illegal deforestation, and the onus is now on VW to do something about its relatively slow progress improving the fuel efficiency and its continued lobbying against EU emissions targets.

Given the huge amount of reputational damage a well-orchestrated protest campaign can do, sustainability managers at any global firm with a high-profile brand need to take a dispassionate look at their progress to date and ask whether they could be due the Greenpeace treatment.

You may have a solid CSR policy in place, but are your environmental improvements at least in line with those of your peers? Do your lobbying activities marry with any green marketing claims you make, and do your procurement policies ensure you use only environmentally responsible suppliers? If not, there is a good chance you could wake up one morning to find that, like VW, your headquarters have been surrounded by Greenpeace's storm troopers.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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