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The selfish corporation's guide to saving the planet

Benny Thomas
Executive Strategy Director
Crispin Porter + Bogusky

Can an anti-tobacco campaign help us save the planet?

There can be no greater purpose for every man woman and child on this earth than the preservation of this earth, as we know it. Yet, why is it that when every scientist agrees humans are responsible for potentially catastrophic climate change, we humans simply ignore it and continue with spewing carbon? It’s quite simple. Telling people something is bad for them does not mean they will stop doing it.

One of the most successful social campaigns of all time, “Truth” by Crispin Porter+Bogusky began with the insight that all the talk about the dangers of smoking was actually making it more attractive to the most vulnerable audience – teenagers.

Because, of course, teenagers are immortal, the threat of death simply makes smoking cooler.

Smoking sign

So the “Truth” campaign shifted its focus to a completely different aspect of the teenage psyche: their rebellion against authority. In a brilliant twist, the campaign took on not tobacco, but the tobacco companies and showed that they were giant, quasi-authority figures bent on manipulating the masses into buying their product.

In an instant, an act of bold, James Dean defiance became seen as obeisance to The Man.

It’s a great example of replacing one set of incentives with another of equal power.

Much of the conversation in culture is about consumers doing their bit, but when it comes to climate change, individual action isn’t enough.

We will fail if we don't act at scale. Large corporations can be our lever to change the world. But large corporations answer to boards, shareholders and hungry analysts every quarter. To get them to change, we have to stop talking about green action as a moral issue and start talking about it as a way to grow business.


Wal-Mart did. Their now-famous demand that suppliers cut their packaging by 5% may have done more than any single action by a brand to reduce waste and lighten their footprint. In turn, it helped lower prices further for shoppers. In recent studies, Millennials listed the retail giant as one of their favourite brands, which is a nice side-effect. Sustainable strategies impact the bottom-line and motivate consumers.

Coca Cola hit exactly that sweet spot when they went straight to the core of their business and launched an initiative to save water. They are active in 320 communities in 86 countries, and consumers are noticing – brand scores have never been higher.

Telling people something is bad for them doesn't mean they'll stop doing it

Best Buy is another great example of a company that mixes immediate gain with the greater good. Not many know the company is the biggest e-cycler in the US, handling over 1 billion pounds of motherboards, chips and once-loved smartphones. They can leverage this to offer trade-ins encouraging consumers to upgrade sooner, setting off a cycle of “virtuous consumption.”

In each of these cases, the brand started from selfishness: how do we cut costs, preserve our raw materials, get shoppers to buy more – and elevated to a “triple-bottom-line” strategy of “people, planet, profits” (not necessarily in that order, but who cares?).

There is no greater challenge for those of us in the marketing community than finding ways to incentivize consumers, corporations and governments to confront climate change. Our efforts thus far have mostly been moralistic finger-wagging that at best preaches to Leo DiCaprio and other members of the converted choir. But there are so many levers available to us: here are just a few time-tested ways to get selfishness working for us.


Green loyalty

In the UK, a new program called ICE rewards shoppers for shopping more sustainably. If we want to shift the way business thinks, let’s think about using nature's principles.


Brand it

Lawmakers opposing the extension of cap and trade to transportation fuels in California called it a “hidden tax.” Why not re-brand it as the “Clean Air Vote” or the “Forest Fire Fighter”?


Find your supporters and empower them

There is a huge army of climate change activists just waiting to be tapped. They are your children and mine. If we could get their pester power to change Mom and Dad, not only do we save the planet, we establish connections with a new generation of consumers.


Behaviorally speaking, the dice are loaded against our brains absorbing the impact of climate change and acting to reverse it. The good news is that if we stop moralizing and start doing our job as marketers, we can save the planet and – a little bonus – make our moms and kids proud.