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Greenpeace Save the Arctic campaign – LEGO and Shell

Greenpeace has had environmental issues at the core of its mission since it was founded in 1971, when a small group set sail from Vancouver, Canada to witness nuclear testing (Greenpeace, 2014a). Now a large international organisation, Greenpeace has several main branches of environmental activism and campaigning. One of its major campaigns is ‘Save the Arctic’, which has been running for 15 years. The campaign is concerned with climate change in general and the shrinking Arctic, but also more specifically with the plans of oil companies to drill in the Arctic. According to Greenpeace, the harsh conditions and remoteness would mean “an oil spill would be almost impossible to deal with. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen”( Greenpeace, 2014b). Climate change can be a nebulous and esoteric problem that the public feel increasingly helpless to do anything about (Nordhaus and Shellenberger, 2009), but by focussing on a specific aspect, with a specific enemy, Greenpeace are providing people with an avenue for tangible action and results.

Currently, the campaign targets the oil company Shell, but throughout its history it has run targeted campaigns against a number of oil companies. Increasingly, companies are coming under scrutiny for their environmental credibility as consumers become more aware of damaging practices and become more discerning with their purchasing power (Miles and Covin, 2000). Greenpeace previously used this knowledge in a successful campaign called ‘StopEsso’ that impacted the social credibility of ExxonMobil (Esso) and caused negative consumer perceptions about the company in regard to the issue of climate change (Gueterbock, 2004).

However, in its most recent ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign, Greenpeace tried another new tactic by targeting the toy company LEGO. LEGO has had a partnership with Shell since the 1960s that saw LEGO toy sets branded with the Shell logo distributed from Shell petrol stations in several countries. Instead of targeting Shell for its plans to drill in the Arctic, Greenpeace targeted LEGO for its partnership with Shell.

Oil companies are now well known for their poor environmental credibility, so environmental campaigns need new ways to bring attention to specific issues. LEGO is a much-beloved toy company, and Greenpeace hoped that by linking LEGO directly to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans they could damage LEGO’s environmental credibility. For a company that had not faced this kind of criticism before, the attention could potentially be very damaging (Cho et al., 2012), so Greenpeace hoped this would force them to end their partnership with Shell. This would further damage Shell by ending a lucrative partnership and denying them the credibility by association with a popular toy company.

Through its partnership with LEGO, Shell had reached a new audience by putting its logo in the hands of children and making it seem more family-friendly and caring (Greenpeace, 2014c). Greenpeace’s targeted campaign also helped them reach the new audience of children by making them an integral part of the campaign mission. Throughout the campaign, Greenpeace pointed to LEGO’s mission to “leave a better world for children”: a promise it is not fulfilling by supporting Shell.

Greenpeace’s campaign went beyond the rhetoric of securing the environment for our children’s future however; it actively used children in several of its marketing stunts. In one event, children built giant LEGO-block Arctic animals outside LEGO’s London headquarters. When justifying the use of children in their campaign, Greenpeace stated: “Children love the Arctic, and its unique wildlife like polar bears, narwhals, walrus and many other species that are completely dependent on the Arctic sea ice. They wouldn’t want to see them threatened.” (Greenpeace 2014c). When assessing the use of emotion in social campaigns aimed at engaging youth, Hirzalla and Van Zoonen (2010) identified the appeal to empathy with animals and identification of animals’ ‘coolness and cuddliness’ as key constructs. While appealing to children through the use of animals, Greenpeace also strengthened its message of saving the planet for future generations by using seemingly self-motivated children in its campaign.

Many of the tactics used in Greenpeace’s campaign against LEGO followed guerilla marketing principles. While traditional guerilla marketing campaigns aimed at selling products focus on the element of surprise and unconventional techniques, Greenpeace’s campaign style could be more closely compared to guerilla warfare, composed of a series of ambushes and sabotages (Creative Guerrilla Marketing, 2015). For example, a band of Greenpeace activists descended on a LEGO factory in the Czech Republic and decorated it with a Shell logo and an oil spill with giant unhappy minifigures (LEGO characters) cleaning it up. Later, activists appeared outside LEGO’s headquarters in Denmark with a series of giant bricks representing the signatures of petitioners to stop the partnership between LEGO and Shell. Greenpeace’s global reach and local bands of enthusiastic demonstrators allow it to run campaigns multinational companies can only dream of; they can produce targeted marketing stunts quickly and a little cost.

A related tactic used in the campaign is viral marketing. Again, aimed at creating buzz with lower cost, viral marketing is “an Internet-based ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing technique” (Woerndl et al., 2008). Greenpeace had an online petition to LEGO to sever its connection with Shell that was easy to sign and share, providing a low barrier to participation for people who might want to join the campaign but not to go out and engage in guerilla activities. It was also easy to share and the progress was easily measured. Often, visible metrics of success can further increase the likelihood of a viral campaign being shared wider as its credibility is established (Woerndl et al., 2008). For example, the number of hits on a YouTube video can influence the likelihood of someone watching and sharing the video.

In fact, the centrepiece of Greenpeace’s viral marketing campaign was a video. Ryan and Jones (2011) said: “Online video is so powerful because well-executed video can be incredibly engaging and entertaining, demands little effort to consume and packs a lot of information into a relatively short space of time in comparison to other media. It’s also incredibly easy to share.” Greepeace’s video, launched at the start of the campaign, now has nearly seven million views on YouTube (Greenpeace, 2014d). It centres around a direct parody of LEGO’s recent smash-hit movie and its iconic song ‘Everything is Awesome’. The song is sung not in its original high-energy upbeat style, but as a slow lament, as images of an Arctic created out of LEGO slowly drowns under a tirade of leaked oil from Shell’s oil drilling platforms.

The video is extremely evocative, showing Arctic animals and ways of life drowning, as well as eventually our way of life too. By constructing the set out of LEGO bricks and using the popular song from the movie, the focus is very much on LEGO, while also capitalising on its recent surge in popularity thanks to the movie. Emotional appeals in marketing are shown to be more effective in eliciting a response from viewers (Franzen, 1994). It can be a risky strategy to appeal to negative feelings, however, unless the ‘product’ being marketed offers a solution. Greenpeace’s encouragement to people to sign the petition and make LEGO end their partnership with Shell prevents the campaign from creating purely negative feelings that could work against viral potential by providing a concrete, actionable solution.

The campaign was launched at the end of June 2014. After two weeks of guerilla tactics and the launch of the video, LEGO at first seemed unwilling to change its position, stating that: “We expect that Shell lives up to their responsibilities wherever they operate and take appropriate action to any potential claims should this not be the case.” LEGO maintained that Greenpeace’s dispute was with Shell and not them. However, for Greenpeace, LEGO’s trust in the oil company’s responsibility was not enough, and the campaign intensified. Finally, in October 2014, LEGO announced that it would not renew its partnership with Shell (Vaughan, 2014a).

However, in LEGO’s statement on the termination of the partnership, it was still reserved in its messaging and maintained that it did not agree with Greenpeace’s tactics against them: “We do not want to be part of Greenpeace’s campaign and we will not comment any further on the campaign. We will continue to deliver creative and inspiring LEGO play experiences to children all over the world.” (LEGO, 2014).

The Greenpeace campaign attracted criticism for targeting LEGO specifically. Some individuals pointed to the hypocrisy of the focus on the dissolution of the partnership as a partway solution to Arctic drilling, considering that LEGO bricks are made of plastic, a by-product of oil (Skapinker, 2014). However, LEGO is currently searching for a sustainable alternative material for its bricks, and hopes to replace oil entirely by 2030 (Miel, 2014).

The narrow focus on targeting LEGO also drew criticism for its simplicity in not dealing with the larger issue of energy generation. Chris Rapley, former director of the Science Museum (who opened a gallery in partnership with Shell), said the campaign “might attract headlines and make them feel good, but does not address the real issues and will not deliver the changes we all need.” (Vaughan, 2014b) Additionally, it has been argued that we all use energy and products of oil in our everyday lives, so we are all ‘implicated’, and any action against individual companies is hypocritical (Skapinker, 2014). Both argue that oil companies are also those most heavily involved in renewable energy development, being more truly ‘energy’ companies than purely ‘oil’ companies.

However, a blogger for The Economist (identified just as M.S.) praised Greenpeace’s campaign, saying that just because we are all sinners does not mean we cannot pressure others to behave better, and it is just these sorts of campaigns that encouraged energy companies to invest in renewable energy research in the first place (S., 2014). M.S. also praised the tactics of Greenpeace’s campaign, saying it leveraged the weight of environmental credibility to produce a concrete result: “If Shell comes to fear that drilling in arctic waters will damage its brand and encourage other well-regarded companies to distance themselves from it, that may help dissuade it from further drilling.” The viral tactics of the campaign were lauded by M.S., who identified it as a breakthrough campaign for Greenpeace as they left their roots of unfurling banners from buildings behind and produced a “wickedly clever campaign that feels entirely of this moment”.

In conclusion, the Greenpeace campaign was a success because it combined virality with up-to-date guerilla tactics in order to challenge the environmental credibility and social licence of a globally-recognised and popular toy company. Future Greenpeace campaigns look set to repeat the strategy, and time will tell if they remain successful. Following the announcement that LEGO terminated their partnership with Shell, executive director of Greenpeace UK John Sauven said: “Clearly Shell is trying to piggy back on the credibility of other brands. It’s a good PR strategy if you can get away with it. But as we’ve shown, if you can’t get away with it, that social licence is taken away. It does damage them a lot.” (Vaughan, 2014a).


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