The latest victory in Greenpeace's campaign against Shell's planned Arctic exploration could present an important opportunity for clean tech firms
Love them or loathe them (and a convincing case can be made for either position), you have to admire Greenpeace's effectiveness. If the "house always wins" is the golden rule of gambling, "Greenpeace always wins" is the golden rule of corporate communications for consumer good companies. Russian dictators and fossil fuel giants may be able to resist the skyscraper traversing eco-scamps, but when it comes to the asymmetrical warfare that is corporate public relations departments versus trespassers with satirical billboards there is almost always only one victor.
"You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming," as Pablo Neruda once observed. Equally, you can issue as many statements as you like bemoaning the injustice of being targeted by NGOs, and highlighting how deforestation/drilling in the Arctic/exploiting tar sands is a complicated issue, but you cannot stop Greenpeace making you look like a bit of a bastard.
The latest company to finally acknowledge this reality is Lego Group, which with an all-consuming sense of inevitability normally reserved for death and taxes declared earlier this month that it would be ending its commercial partnership with Shell. "As we have stated before, we firmly believe Greenpeace ought to have a direct conversation with Shell," said Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, chief executive of the LEGO Group, before confirming that in order to avoid any more pesky misunderstandings and "ensure that our attention is not diverted from our commitment to delivering creative and inspiring play experiences" the company would not be renewing its co-promotion contract with Shell after all.
However, this is not a blog post about whether or not Greenpeace was justified in targeting Shell and dragging Lego into its row over whether or not one of the world's last great wildernesses should be exploited. (For what it is worth I'd argue simply protesting against fossil fuel companies in and of themselves is not justified - after all the global economy is still powered by the energy they help provide. However, if it is unrealistic to demand an end to fossil fuels overnight it is not unrealistic to call for a better form of fossil fuels. Consequently, protesting against the specific activities of certain fossil fuel companies, be it their high risk pursuit of oil in the Arctic, their high risk exploitation of ultra-high carbon tar sands, their willingness to ignore both these risks by dismissing carbon bubble arguments, their relatively paltry investments in carbon capture and storage, or their funding of climate change related misinformation, is entirely justified. And what is more those partner organisations that benefit financially from association with oil companies engaged in these activities have to accept they will be targets for protestors, in so much as they help provide the oil majors with their license to operate.)
No, this is not a blog post about the ethics of green protests; this is a blog post about what happens next.
As the old saying goes, one man's misfortune is another man's gain. Once Lego is done with feeling aggrieved about being kicked by Greenpeace the company will realise that the ditching of Shell has created a vacancy for an alternative co-promotion campaign with a different global brand. The Shell deal saw Lego make and sell Shell branded Lego petrol stations and related toys. If Tesla's Elon Musk or Nissan's Carlos Ghosn has not yet got on the phone to Denmark with a proposal for a Lego electric car charging station then they are missing a trick.
Shell used Lego for years to normalise and promote cars and petrol stations in the eyes of impressionable children. As electric cars and other clean technologies become a regular feature of our city-scapes the companies leading the clean tech revolution should look to learn from the fossil fuel marketing masters they are seeking to replace.
The Lego partnership is just one of many examples where fossil fuel brands work with loved and respected consumer-facing brands and organisations, almost all of which present a huge marketing opportunity for clean tech firms. For example, would the Tate continue to resist the Liberate Tate protestors who object to BP's sponsorship of the gallery if a clean tech competitor promised to match the oil giant's philanthropic generosity? I'd wager they would embrace their shiny new controversy-busting wind or solar powered sugar daddy faster than you can say 'the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has nothing to do with us'.
You can debate whether the high profile artistic, charitable and commercial partnerships indulged in by countless brands are a welcome example of how big businesses benefit the communities in which they operate or a cynical example of backdoor lobbying and reputation laundering (again a convincing case can be made for either position). But the reality is that from sponsored sports teams to toy manufacturers and galleries to Hollywood movie studios, corporate partners would almost certainly prefer to work with cutting edge clean tech firms over the pollutocrats of the 20th century. It is a natural advantage that everyone working in the marketing and communications departments of clean tech providers should be aware of. After all, who wouldn't want to play with a Lego electric vehicle charging station powered by a Lego wind turbine and solar farm?
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