Greenwash Stunt Flops – A PR Case Study

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To catch the “Green is the New Black” trend, Dove Hong Kong issued post on Facebook 2 weeks ago to kick-off it’s “Re/Up Cycle Game”.  In large font, it read “step 123 saving planet earth” and “Let’s recycle and reuse”, and below that in small font “plastic containers of all personal care products sold by Unilever Hong Kong are recyclable.”  Saving planet earth??! That’s audacious, even by the hyperbole of advertising. The poster reminds consumers to put the Dove body wash bottles into recycling bins after removing and discarding the pump (because the pump is not recyclable).  It also invites consumers to come up with innovative ideas to upcycle Dove plastic containers. The top 3 most innovative ideas may win HKD 1000 Watson’s coupon (“may”, not “will”) and 30 other participants will each receive a set of re-usable stainless steel straws. The prizes are to encourage “everyone” (apparently excluding Unilever itself) to contribute to environmental protection.

Their PR or advertising execs came up with this low-budget ploy to free-ride on concern for the environment probably thought they were pretty smart. Unfortunately this PR stunt flopped miserably. Only a handful of participants came up with ideas, such as cutting off the top to turn it into a pencil or laundry clips holder. Hundreds of others instead left comments requesting Dove provide consumers with refill packs.  Here are some examples:

“If Dove is sincere, it should be the one to be innovative.  Dove should not push the burden onto consumers and recyclers to deal with its plastic bottles. It should start selling re-fill packs, or to collect its own bottles for reuse.”

“If Dove truly cares about the environment it should take back its own bottles, wash and then re-use them…how about setting up self-help store to refill liquid soap with your own bottle? ”

I was asked why are there so few personal care brands sell refill packs in Hong Kong?  My guess? Like all things it boils down to money. The production line was set up to churn out and pack the liquid into bottles. To produce refill packs, significant reconfiguration and investment in machinery would be required. Packing and transporting them would also require reconfiguring processes. It would also require a change in consumer habits, consumers would need to take the extra step of refilling their own bottle.

Finally, there is the question of pricing, consumers would likely demand a lower price for refill pack, cutting into revenue and margins. Manufacturers know all too well that their plastic bottles and pump heads are very durable. That means for consumers that switch to buying refill packs, it would mean a loss of revenue. Therefore while some brands pay lip service to environmental protection, almost all major brands refrain from providing refill packs. It would require retooling factories, and lower revenue, with little in the way of financial upside. So business as usual continues.

However, Unilever Hong Kong may be able to learn a lesson from this PR flop. It demonstrated consumer awareness of environmental issues, and a demand for solutions. A major brand that could meet this consumer demand for refill packs may be able to seize market share from competitors and maintain customer loyalty, thereby increasing revenue and lowering marketing and advertising costs. In a rapidly changing business environment, corporations will innovate or be disrupted.

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