How Greenpeace dismantled Lego chief's Shell resolve brick by brick
Innovative campaign from environmental group leads toymaker to ditch marketing tie-up with oil brand
Lego bosses have decided not to renew a marketing deal with Shell, following a Greenpeace campaign that subverted the toymaker’s branding and imagery. Under the contract – which has been in place for the past three years – Shell-branded Lego sets were made available as exclusive items through the oil giant’s network of service stations. However, after standing firm on the deal throughout the summer, Lego group CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp has now confirmed that his organisation will not sign up to a second phase.
Greenpeace’s campaign kicked off on 1 July in the form of a press release complete with an image of a Lego walrus facing an oncoming oil slick. In its announcement, the environmental group’s arctic campaigner Ian Duff said: “Shell wants to take advantage of the melting ice to drill for more of the fuels that caused the melting in the first place.”
He added: “Already more than 16 million Shell-branded Lego sets have been sold or given away at petrol stations in 26 countries. Shell is so delighted by the results that further promotions are already planned for this year. But Lego, the biggest toy company in the world, has built its brand on its continued promise of leaving a better world for children. And by teaming up with Shell it’s letting kids down.”
Knudstorp quickly condemned the group’s tactics, announcing on the same day: “The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in a specific part of the world. We firmly believe that this matter must be handled between Shell and Greenpeace. We are saddened when the LEGO brand is used as a tool in any dispute between organisations.” He also stressed: “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. I would like to clarify that we intend to live up to the long term contract with Shell, which we entered into in 2011.”
A few days later, though, Greenpeace significantly upped the ante with a YouTube film (see below) depicting a Lego-made Arctic world drowning in a sea of oil. The film’s chosen soundtrack was a heart-rending ballad take on the song “Everything Is Awesome”, from the toymaker’s recent animated blockbuster The Lego Movie.
Greenpeace published the film on 8 July, supported by a blurb saying: “We love Lego. You love Lego. Everyone loves Lego. But when Lego’s halo effect is being used to sell propaganda to children, especially by an unethical corporation who are busy destroying the natural world our children will inherit, we have to do something.”
It added: “Children’s imaginations are an unspoilt wilderness. Help us stop Shell polluting them by telling Lego to stop selling Shell-branded bricks and kits today.” The blurb then provided a link to an online petition.
Since it emerged, the subversive clip has notched up almost 5.9m views – six times the tally recorded for the official “Everything Is Awesome” pop video at a separate YouTube page. With the film’s strong following making it increasingly harder for Lego to distance itself from Greenpeace’s Shell quarrel, Knudstorp’s hand was finally forced.
In a statement, he repeated his criticism of the campaign group’s methods and said: “The long-term co-promotion contract we entered with Shell in 2011 delivers on the objective of bringing Lego bricks into the hands of many children, and we will honour it – as we would with any contract we enter.” However, he added: “We want to clarify that as things currently stand we will not renew the co-promotion contract with Shell when the present contract ends.”
Today, Greenpeace welcomed Knudstorp’s move as “fantastic news for Lego fans and Arctic defenders everywhere … it’s a huge blow to Shell’s strategy of partnering with beloved brands to clean up its dirty image as an Arctic oil driller.”
Speaking to CMI Insights, Will Edwards – managing director of media-training consultancy Bluewood Training – said: “The marketing stunt to tie in Shell and Lego may have seemed to some people slightly odd, and if Lego had assumed it would not face any of the same criticism Shell gets, it was probably being naïve. Greenpeace has shown that it is willing to tackle the organisations it takes issue with in any way – even if that means going after a brand of toys. The campaigners made it very clear what they wanted in their YouTube video, with the message displayed at the end: ‘Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations’. They followed it with the very clear call to action: ‘Tell Lego to end its partnership with Shell’.”
Edwards added: “The dramatic video of Lego figures drowning in oil was, quite frankly, very well done. It was bound to tug on the heartstrings of viewers – but it was really Greenpeace’s persistence of delivering a petition to Lego, and then making it clear that it was going to keep on at the toymaker, that seems to have been the final straw. Both Shell and Lego seemed most unwilling to have a dialogue with Greenpeace during this almost three-month-long affair, and it may have been possible that Lego could at least have tried to mitigate some of the damage this caused to their brand by speaking out. Overall, Greenpeace will view this as a victory. But while Shell is unlikely to be too surprised by another attack from the group, Lego and its many fans just might feel that this was a cruel step too far by Greenpeace. It’s a lesson for all brands, no matter who they are: always ensure you have a plan in place for when your reputation is threatened.”
The video that pulled apart Lego’s stance on Shell
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