Greenpeace vs. VW

Greenpeace's VW Dark Side campaign has quickly attracted large number of supporters. So what makes this one work where others struggle?
Greenpeace vs. VW
Greenpeace's VW Dark Side campaign has much we all can learn from

I have a weak-spot for Star Wars. So when VW released its "The Force" video in February 2011, I, like others (40 million+ views ;as of July 2011), had a good laugh watching it.

I also have a passion for campaigning on issues I care about like environmental and social justice. So in late June when Greenpeace UK launched its campaign focusing on VW's EU lobbying against CO2 emissions cuts (VW Dark Side) with its own spoof of the VW ad (and accompanying Storm Troopers on the streets) I was completely enraptured. Especially good was how they 'gamified' participating and promoting the campaign. For example, visit my VW Dark Side profile to see how I gain points by attracting campaign support, increase along clear levels and get a t-shirt if I get lots of support.

The amazing thing was, it was not only better than the VW ad, it was also was integrated better online and offline and incentivised me to help promote it. Tom Baker's blog post has more insight into the London launch.

Apparently a lot of others also found the same thing as the campaign rapidly attracted supporters.

What made it successful?

Shortly after I engaged with the campaign, a German Journalist (Marcus Rohwetter, Business Journalist) from Die Zeit (a leading German media outlet with more than one million readers a week) contacted me to ask "That vwdarkside-Video seems to be pretty successful, although none of the reproaches against Volkswagen is new – what do you think is the secret behind its success?" Below are my thoughts (also provided to Marcus) on why (with input from the ECF Community and Greenpeace) and here is the Die Zeit article (in German).

Correcting assumptions

Marcus was partially correct that the reproaches against VW are not new. However:

  1. For most people they are new since the facts around lobbying activities are usually buried in the corridors of power and not shouted from the roof-tops (emailed, tweeted, and shared on Facebook).
  2. No one has (successfully) held VW publicly to account for this - so it is likely a dirty insiders secret: known to a few specialists but unknown to most
  3. Whilst VW has a history of being opposed to vehicle efficiency legislation, the fact that they are so adamantly opposed to the current value of 95g is again, something which is being discussed
  4. Because of VW's image as a greener option (something this campaign is undermining), and their technology, they are in a position to lead the car industry to the light side and lower emissions. If they turn away from the 'dark side', it would have a big impact on the industry beyond just VW.
  5. Despite the fact it is new to most people, I think novelty is less important than relevance and entertainment, specifically gamification. The importance of those two things are fundamental to most popular campaigns. Unfortunately most campaigns neglect both.

Popularity is not impact

For Greenpeace, popularity is obviously only a means to an end: for all the people who show active support for the campaign, an even greater number are exposed to the message that VW is resisting key environmental laws on emissions and eco-tech. On an emotional level, VW is associated with the 'dark side' (evil) but we know they can 'repent' and be redeemed'. We'll see if VW listens, but Greenpeace campaigns have a good track record due to their excellent power analysis (what influences those they are trying to influence) and excellent implementation.

So I think the campaign is successful so far (and we'll see if it has an impact) because:

  1. It is relevant because it taps into a shared passion of the star wars saga of many (not all) people - that makes it fun - and it is well implemented because it is consistent throughout the communication (using star wars metaphors throughout). The huge success of recent VW campaign using a very similar link also makes it relevant in terms of people recent experience. So it is relevant in terms of both interest and timeliness. The Internet makes it even easier to be relevant. For instance, I use Google Apps for my email, and the ads are now about the Greenpeace VW campaign. I suspect the same thing will also occur for searching.
  2. It gamifies the experience: telling friends (which all campaigns want you to do) is visualised and rewarded so that it provides an incentive for people to do it (I've already checked my progress several times today and have thought of more ways to increase my level!). Competitive, social and incentive systems are very powerful when used well and in this case they have done an excellent job.
  3. This isn't just happening online. Yesterday in London (and perhaps other places), there were apparently storm troopers and other Star Wars characters walking around in a tech-centric area resulting in thousands of tweets and other ways of sharing the experience by those people most net savvy and connected.
  4. The aspect of leveraging (riding) a brand's existing success to launch a campaign off of is also very important for corporate campaigns: VW has done the hard work of getting attention and now Greenpeace just has to brand-surf on that to get more attention.

Relevance matters

Only a few weeks before the VW Dark Side campaig, Greenpeace did something similar focused on Mattel (and ultimately Sinar Mas): the Barbie campaign. It started with reality-tv style video of Ken dumping Barbie and continued with a Facebook page to 'unlike' barbie, a Barbie Hunt, etc. - all because of Mattel using packaging for Barbie from clear-cut Indonesian forest. While this had brilliant implementation like the VW campaign, it appealed less to me personally, yet may have appealed to many others more than the Star Wars themed VW campaign. The key for campaigning is not trying to get everyone supporting it, but get the right people supporting it: the stakeholders of the target.

Others' thoughts

I asked others for their input on my response via the members of the 1000+ strong eCampaigning Forum Community (which includes the people behind the VW Dark Side campaign). Here is a summary of their input too:

  1. Corporations and their brands are more compelling targets than politicians because their marketing success has made corporate brands more recognisable to more people. Campaigns aimed at corporate brands are also winnable (and perceived as winnable) faster: corporate leaders can change their minds and policies in hours while for governments it take months or years.
  2. This represents a new tactic that is rarely used: targeting a company because of their lobbying practices rather than their environmental and social impact. People dislike lobbying genrrally (it feels like corruption to most I'd guess) so a corporation doing it is an outrage and is perceived as a perversion of transparent democratic process. Some will simply respond to this. But to gain popularity, it must be more than just outrange - it must be fun and social outrage!

So - to answer your question - what is the secret behind the success: relevance, gamification and brand-surfing.

Indicators of success

While 'buzz' is not success for a campaign, it helps lead to success if the target (like VW) feels it is undermining the brand or other aspects of their activities. So buzz is an intermediate indicator that suggests when there is widespread support for a campaign and thus increased likelihood of an impact.

On a buzz level, the VW Dark Side campaign is doing well: there are now thousands of blog posts (16,400 as of 11 July) and tweets about it, many of which are by people wanting to get more points for their profile and thus the gamification helps.

While the campaign obviously appealed to Star Wars fans, anecdotal evidence suggests it went beyond this group: I've heard a few people say that they are not Star Wars fans yet got 'hooked' by the gaming elements of the online action.

Comments on the Die Zeit article seemed to be mostly negative about the Greenpeace Campaign, but that itself isn't a indicator of success or failure since the readers may not be the strategic audience and 'commenters' tend to be only a small proportion of readership (and often only comment when they disagree). More important is the volume of comments which represents not only that the article is getting read by large number of people, but that people are engaging with the issue. Of course, there is something to learn from the comments too, one of which is that many people "don't get it", perhaps because it depends partially on knowing the Star Wars characters and story.

Furthermore, despite the silence from VW on the PR front, Greenpeace's VW Dark Side video (and for a while it's YouTube account) were blocked by YouTube. This normally happens after a trademark complaint. The most likely trademark complainants in this case are VW and Lucas Films (or whoever owns the Star Wars trademark). So even if VW released a statement, the 'censoring' of the video indicates it has come to someone's attention - probably VW and is starting to have an impact.

Next step: participate in the debate

Anecdotal evidence from Greenpeace indicates the campaign has been well received in Germany - home of VW. Yet the Die Zeit comments are negative. So what do people really think? Both. Just as anywhere, different people in the same society will have a wide range of views.  What is true is that VW in Germany generally has a strong, eco-friendly brand. This is reflected in the Die Zeit comments and beyond. So countering this brand perception in the debate is likely going to be critical for the campaign.

Greenpeace has addressed this in their research report. Now they need to engage the brand-washed people to show them their perception of the brand is wrong.

As on Greenpeace says: "There's a handy set of 'Key Facts' [in the report] that chip away at [VW's] green veneer: e.g. only 6% of group global sales come from the most efficient cars, the prices of those cars are artificially inflated, and they actively oppose climate legislation both in Europe and the US."

"The gap between the ecofriendliness they claim and their actual practice is key, in particular with audiences that are bought into the greenwash."

OK - that convinced me - now get that message out there Greenpeace: you've has started a debate, now dive-in.

Strategically, people who complain or make negative comments are precisely the people you wish to engage more: they are opinionated and passionate. Getting a few hundred on your side can be more powerful (if directed strategically) than tens-of-thousands of action participants. 

The exception would be when critics have an 'religious' commitment to a position such as in gun control, abortion or climate-deniers. But those cases don't apply here. I think these critics can be convinced. Doing do publicly (e.g. with comments, tweet responses, guest articles) also helps educate and empower supporters with more arguments.  The research report is great, but most won't read it. Greenpeace needs to go to to the critics.

by Duane Raymond published Jun 29, 2011,