The biggest polluter asks YOU to recycle

A very daring campaign by Coca-Cola in 2019 indicates that they thought they have found the answer to battle plastic pollution. They challenged their customers to recycle with the unusual slogan: "Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you don’t help us recycle" The hypocrisy of that statement will be further explained in this blog.

The campaign is based on the AIDA marketing model. A popular strategy for marketeers, where a slogan like this can break through existing behaviour patterns. However, tactical as it might be, it is very unusual for a company like Coca-Cola to send such a slogan out into the world. A guerrilla marketing strategy like this is one we don’t recognize from Coca-Cola. What happened to Coca-Cola and the familiarity we know about them with campaigns such as “A Coke for everyone“?

The campaign started by the placement of a gigantic banner, seen in the image above, in the Albert Cuypmarkt in the centre of Amsterdam. Subsequently, the same slogan was displayed at various bus stops and in other major cities within the BeNeLux. This form of marketing was the only used channel for the launch of this campaign, where the mentioning on social platforms failed to materialize. The table on the right indicates how low the campaign is shared or reported across different platforms. Extremely low numbers compared to the campaigns that we are used to from Coca-Cola.

Okay, that’s clear, it has been a short, low-profile campaign. But why did Coca-Cola choose this strategy? The campaign is a small part of Coca-Cola’s global commitment to a Circular Economy. A brave pursuit, given that Coca-Cola has been the number 1 plastic polluter for years already.

So, together with the consumer, Coca-Cola wants to strive for a circular economy. That explains the aggressive form of marketing where they mention: “We can’t do it alone!” A funny fact is that while this campaign has skyrocketed, the use of recycled plastic in their own products from 2018 to 2019 decreased by 10%. The campaign “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you don’t help us recycle” is in direct contrast with their own business operations.

In 1990, Coca-Cola made a commitment to make their bottles (their biggest polluters) of 25% recycled plastic by 2015, but has only reached 10% of that in 2020. Even if the campaign would have inspired anyone to recycle more, Coca-Cola should take the lead and actually use recycled plastic in their packaging.

A similar situation was seen in the campaign of a clothing manufacturer in 2011. A page-size image of one of their jackets with the words “Don’t buy this jacket” was published in the New York Times. Surrounded by the image of the jacked, it said exactly what the damages to the environment are when producing such a jacket. Also with that campaign you can questions the double intentions of the company (after this campaign, sales figures of Patagonia rose by 30%). But Patagonia has actually shown a consistent effort to green their business operations since its foundation in 1973. Initiatives are set up to sell purchased products second-hand, and staff is sent out to repair damaged clothing.

The big difference between Patagonia and Coca-Cola is that Patagonia actually pursues a greener future in their business operations, whatever their further strategy may be.

The example of Patagonia as described above is called ‘green demarketing’ A strategy of advertising where they encourage the consumer to not-buy their products. In this strategy, the producer often promises to organize their production processes as green as possible.

Confusion can arise when Coca-Cola’s campaign is presented under the green demarketing principle. While Patagonia is committed to its greener production processes, Coca-Cola is decreasing the amount of recyclable plastic in their products. Although the slogan “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you don’t help us recycle” is very similar to that of Patagonia, Coca-Cola’s campaign leans more towards the principle of “Greenwashing.” This happens when more money is spent on marketing themselves as a sustainable company, than on minimizing their impact on the environment. Investments in the campaign described in this blog are dwarfed by global investments in their “World Without Waste” campaign. However, the investments that Coca Cola does for their greenwashing practices are then again insignificant compared to the damage to our planet.

Door: Bob van der Burgt | Msc. student Energy for Society

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