Can Coca-Cola save the world?

by Wester van Gaal

We agreed to meet in a nineteenth century pub in the heart of Amsterdam, but I ‘m early, so I’m checking the LinkedIn of my interviewee: Gareth Broadbent — he calls himself a ‘freelance marketing creative’ with no further explanation but for a long list of major clients under his belt: Diesel, Adidas, LG, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, etc etc along with the prizes he’s won. Fairly standard fodder for a marketing type.

However, recently Broadbent united a group of creatives under the name, ‘Good Things’, with the aim, ‘to remix the basic ingredients of consumerism, marketing and corporate thinking, into easy to swallow ideas that are good for everyone’. This Summer saw the launch of their first self-funded initiative, ‘Buy the World a Hope’. A public pitch to the biggest brand in the world for a radically new kind of marketing campaign: what if Coca-Cola produced zero advertising for a year and instead invests its entire marketing budget (three billion dollars worldwide) to combat climate change and help save the world.

With scandals like Volkswagen’s fraud emissions, it’s easy to file marketing away under the axis of evil, a smokescreen for large polluters. Marketing and corporate persuasion has historically been used to stimulate consumption to unsustainable levels, could it now be harnessed as a weapon to fight against climate change? Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl advertising was an endorsement of immigrants. Chevrolet stood up for gay people. But I still have not seen any of the big brands raising a voice in the climate debate. Why not?

With 3 billion dollars to play with, a good marketing idea could have substantial impact in the fight against climate change. Marketing could become as important as art, literature, philosophy, Hollywood or activism in formation of mass culture views. When I asked about the concept behind ‘Buy the World a Hope’ my interest piqued immediately.

The idea

‘Buy the World a Hope’, plays on Coca-Cola’s, ‘Buy the World a Coke’, its famed advertising jingle, which in 1971 became on of the first global advertising campaigns. The song was sung by a cheerful, multicultural group of young people on an arcadian hill in Italy. Coke is good, they sing. Coke connects people. Coke is for everyone. The message came at the time when American cities were plagued by racial riots. Coca-Cola took (after necessary market research) a clear social position — which brought it huge success.

Broadbent and his team want to seduce Coca-Cola to make this clip again, but now with the twelve biggest stars of the moment, and in the Amazon region, in order to publicly announce the idea to invest three billion-ish dollars to save rainforests.

They bring the idea to life in in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KWp7La5Ciw

The Creators Project: Why do you think Coca-Cola would do this?

Gareth Broadbent: “They have every reason. You can see our campaign as an open letter to the CEO Muhtar Kent, who in 2009 said that only ideas that are good for the planet will get traction. Coca-Cola’s vision for 2020 is to be a leader in sustainability, and their mission is to “refresh the world and inspire moments of optimism and happiness.” But if you look at the state of the world now, it’s not so optimistic and happy. Research shows that Millennials and Generation Z expect brands to make the world a better place. Almost no major brand does that right now. Coca-Cola could lead by example as they did in 1971. It could be the biggest marketing campaign ever.”

Broadbent substantiates that claim to a market study by Edelman Good Purpose Research, which revealed that 83% of consumers adjust their buying behaviour to brands that make the world a better place.

Storyteller guru Jonah Sachs wrote in The Guardian an article entitled,The Ultimate missed marketing opportunity: Climate Change. This is exactly what brands are looking for: a subject that is still sensitive enough to to be hot, yet with consensus among social media influencers. It is a miracle that no one has taken this chance to grab climate change.” While it is clear that there are climate change ‘marketing opportunities’ to be exploited, it can turn the stomach to hear people talking about an existential problem as if it was a commodity.

The fundamental criticism of the free market

Marketers are viewed badly by environmental circles. Many activists are understandably, deeply suspicious towards anything that smells of marketing and capitalism.

Bill McKibben, one of the most influential voices among environmentalists, recently wrote: If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. This is because climate change is a market in itself. Insurers pay out higher costs from climate disasters, and so require much higher premiums. ‘Asset managers’ as Schroders Plc buy water rights, so they can resell in the future at a much higher value. If the destruction of the Earth is profitable, free market capitalism will be there to exploit it. Further, this week, a magnificent study by Columbia University revealed that Exxon, since the early nineties, has dedicated a large research team to focus on the consequences of climate change. Not to avoid it, but to determine just how much oil they could extract under the retreating ice caps.

Back to marketing and, ‘Greenwashinghas sadly become the norm, British Petroleum became ‘Beyond Petroleum’, Shell became the spearhead of a ‘New Energy Future. Both companies have already withdrawn their investments from clean energy. A survey of Terra Choice, a Canadian agency for marketing and the environment, found that 95% of all brands that position themselves environmentally friendly, are not. This is exactly what George Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller call, The Economics of Deception. If there is room to cheat, people will cheat.

At the same time we are in a transition phase. Last week it was announced that four hundred companies and two thousand of the world’s richest investors will divest 2.6 trillion dollars of investment away from the fossil industry. Sounds good, but what will happen to that money? And who will get that carbon revenue worth $28 trillion that’s left in the ground? Solar and wind power? $785 billion of this extra money goes towards climate-friendly companies. Where the rest of the money is going, we’ll have to see. It will probably be spread over all those companies that are less innovative than Tesla, less durable than Solar City and who have marketing departments that keep pollution out of sight of the general public. True sustainability ideas are needed from outside the establishment.

‘Buy the World a Hope’ is potentially an idea that can provide a paradigm shift in the marketing industry. It could set a precedent to shows that a radical investment in nature is good for business. But would the world really be better off? That is the key question.

TCP: Would the world really become better off through your idea? Don’t you limit yourselves by focussing on the rainforest?

Gareth Broadbent: Saving the rainforests is a tangible solution that most people can grasp and understand. If Coke is interested in the idea, we would form a team of experts to best plan how to spend the budget. There is a huge education element to this project too. 40% of the world’s population are not even aware that climate change exists, the distribution of Coca-Cola bottles with this message on will help spread this message. Coca-Cola after O.K. the most widely understood word in the world. The bottles get everywhere. We can reach billions of people who would otherwise never be exposed to these ideas.

To both spread the environmental message and importantly maximize Coca-Cola’s marketing reach, Broadbent quickly calculates that through adding this message to the end of music videos made by the biggest twelve pop stars in the world we could reach between six and twelve billion people. When I ask why he believes that those twelve pop stars will agree to it, he claim, “musicians have been lending their voice to charitable projects since Live Aid 1981. Considering what these 3BN dollars could do, I think they would join in. We thought about how the budget could be split: 3 billion to protecting land and 400 million, for example, could go towards forming the research team, producing the ‘Buy the World a Hope’ video and to the artists themselves, if they didn’t want contribute for free. That’s the thing: three billion dollars is an incredible amount of money.”

The underlying hope is that this idea would set a precedent and the other brands would follow, or that other creatives would publicly pitch other brand relevant good ideas for other major brands. “The biggest obstacle is how risk averse most incumbent marketing executives are. Almost no one dares to take a radical step for the environment. If this plan or any other plan works, it will have an impact on the way marketing budgets (worldwide amounting to $480 billion) are spent. People will realize that it is possible to invest more than 1% of the profit to charity. The world will see that there are cleverer, infinitely more effective and good ways to do connect with audiences.

TCP: You’re operating within the system, but most activists see the rules of the free market as the root of all evil. How do you feel about that?

Gareth Broadbent: “I think it’s rather extreme. I am not an anarchist. We are simply generating ideas that could be incredible for business and the planet. My goal is not to overthrow the system. I see marketing as an effective way to spread both an idea or an ideal. The more of these kind of ideas we make happen together, the more people will realize that we need to change our behaviour. Right now we need the persuasive power of marketing — but instead of encouraging overconsumption we could use that power to make the world a better place.”

TCP: Do you think it will happen?

Gareth Broadbent: If we work hard. If we go viral, then we will present the idea face to face with the CEO, Muhtar Kent. I believe there is no draw back, it is a total no-brainer of an idea and it can be done just like that. The only thing in the way of ‘hope’ is fear. Not just on the part of conventional marketeers at Coke, most media outlets and publication houses are reluctant to tell our story because of their financial ties to Coca-Cola.

TCP: Is change possible?

Right now Broadbent cannot give a definitive answer to the question whether marketing can be deployed or not to save the world. As Brian Fitzgerald from Greenpeace recently stated, “If everyone believes that change is possible, things change.” Pasco Sabino, researcher for Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an NGO that follows European lobbyers of big business said, “Volkswagen is committed to influence as many channels as possible. This broad lobbying strategy has become typical for big businesses. The idea is that through the entire political system you create a countless amount of voices that all say the same thing.”

The environmental movement must also focus on influencing as many channels as possible. Countless voices all reiterating that saving the world is good for business. Marketing is one of those voices that we cannot afford to forget.

Original article via The Creators Project

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