Greenpeace: #BrandVandals at scale
Greenpeace's attack on Lego is an example of brand activism at scale. Tom Liacas has written up an excellent analysis of the campaign on Social for Survival.
When Steve Earl and I were researching #BrandVandals we spoke to Andrew Thomas, founder and publisher of Communicate Magazine. He cited Greenpeace as one of the biggest spenders and smartest public relations operators.
"I'm often asked who spends the most on public relations. Who has the biggest communications budget? Who has the highest lobbying bill? Everyone always expects me to say BAE Systems, BP or General Electric."
"The biggest budgets come not from a listed company investing heavily to protect its corporate reputation but from non-government organisations and pressure groups spending heavily to campaign against an issue or organisations," said Thomas.
Thomas has unique and first-hand insight into the attacks that brands face on their reputation and the steps that they are taking to modernise their communications. We were keen to seek out his view on how corporate organisations are getting to grips with the radical transparency that the Internet has brought about.
A public relations company
"The argument one often hears is that a poor minnow like Greenpeace is a tiny voice against the might of an oil industry giant like BP. Indeed, on paper, Greenpeace spent £37,000 on lobbying in 2011, compared with £5.5 million from BP."
"And yet Greenpeace exists only as a pressure group. It has no manufacturing base, no line for new product development in its budget. Every penny it spends is effectively spent on communications. And that's not a small amount. In 2011 its budget was £208 million. This is before you also factor in an army of unpaid volunteers, doubling that figure in terms of the labour, skills and expertise they get," said Thomas.
He goes on to say, ‘"Now, please don’t misunderstand my sentiments. I'm grateful for organisations like Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The work they do is vital in terms of ensuring there is a genuine collective conscience and accountability."
"Within a democratic capitalist structure pressure groups provide many of the checks and balances needed. However, the sectors on which these NGOs predominantly campaign against have not traditionally needed a public-facing image."
Engagement is the only option
Here’s the issue for organisations. The Internet has turned audiences and organisations inside out, meaning that organisations have no choice but to engage with public audiences. For example, only 20 per cent of oil is destined for cars and petrol stations are predominantly franchise-holders anyway.
Mining and weapon manufacturing obviously do not target the consumer and, other than in the US, the pharmaceutical sector is not allowed to reach out to the consumer.
However, the growth of the pressure group has, in turn, meant that these non-consumer-facing organisations have had to massively increase their investment on lobbying, corporate public relations and reputation management.
"One of the key issues for companies from these sectors has been the age and dynamism of those attracted to volunteer or work for the pressure groups. It has always been the younger generation that has more time to devote to protest."
"It is the young, digital native, wired generation that has joined the wars against the defence companies, the energy sector, the extraction industries and so on," said Thomas.
"Some of the most memorable campaigns of recent times have been Greenpeace’s Orang-utan’s finger and the Friends of the Earth's BP rebranded. Two campaigns that were almost impossible for Nestlé or BP to retaliate against without increasing the issues that the campaigns raised."
"The business community is in constant catch-up mode, as the protesters are able to provide greater numbers and greater understanding of social communications. But it will always be catch-up. The pressure groups will continue to outspend and outsmart the “dirty sectors” because they exist for no other function. If they weren’t they wouldn’t really be doing their job,’ he added.