How online activism can be harmful to established brands: an example of Lego and Greenpeace

Written by Christina Freisleben

Setting the stage

“Lego ends Shell partnership following Greenpeace campaign” (Vaughan, 2014). Such and similar headlines could be found in newspapers in October 2014, reporting the end result of a social media campaign started by Greenpeace three months earlier. The environmentalist group smartly used their social media platforms to attack the toy manufacturer, gaining support from millions of followers worldwide. 

It is commonly acknowledged that the Internet and more importantly the revolutionized version termed Web 2.0 has changed the world we live in and the way we communicate. This has changed every aspect of our life; privately as well as the working life and the way we do business (Christodoulides, 2009, p.141). Individuals, brands and marketers have taken to the web to establish a network of followers and supporters. Naturally they are not alone in these endeavors: activists also use their web presence to fight for their causes, raise public awareness and create a following.  

Hence, the aim of this paper is to provide and example of how online activism can affect a brand negatively and what companies can learn from it. The first part provides a deeper insight into what online activism is and uses the Greenpeace campaign targeting Lego and Shell as an example. The second part elaborates what changed the Internet has brought in regards to activism and what companies can learn from the Lego case. 

Online Activism – What is it?

In the Oxford Dictionary (2015) the word ‘activism’ is defined as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change”. Online activism has the same objectives, however the primary medium of communication is the Internet. According to Yang (2009) the web can be used to organize protests, set up online petitions, host campaign websites and voice verbal protests. He continues to describe that in some very radical cases online activism goes as far as hacking websites. Cyber attacks, e-mail campaigns or e-mail bombs (which refers to a massive amount of e-mails being sent to one recipient) and anti-brand hate sites are additional forms of online activism (Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009). 

As Krishnamurthy and Kucuk (2009) point out, activism existed a long time before the Internet was invented. However, the online world has opened up easier and faster ways to create a following and to communicate with a large amount of people all over the world simultaneously. It enabled people to “clearly broadcast their message and communicate with other likeminded individuals, which allow them to develop strong group identity and support for one another creating a social or political movement” (Roper, 2002 cited in Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009). 

Activist content can basically be found all around the web – in blogs, podcasts, social media platforms (eg. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.) and specifically created websites (Yang, 2009). Not only individuals fighting for a cause have created a web-presence. Well-known activist groups such as Greenpeace, WWF and Amnesty International have taken to the Internet to mobilize support and educate people. How these organizations operate online and use the newly available tools to their advantage will be explained by examining the Greenpeace campaign against Lego and Shell from 2014. 

Lego under attack   

On the 8th of July 2014 Greenpeace posted a one minute 45 second video on Youtube, which showed the Arctic environment built from Lego bricks slowly drowning in black oil caused by a spill from the drilling efforts undertaken by the oil giant Shell (Matlack, 2014). They promoted the clip on their Facebook and Twitter pages and it went viral. The video was shared by followers of the activist group, which meant that it reached a magnitude of people all over the world in a short time. All this activity of course attracted media attention and soon the Greenpeace campaign was discussed in reports, blogs and articles all over the Internet. 

The intention of the campaign was to put pressure on Lego to end their marketing partnership with Shell (which consisted of special Lego sets branded with the Shell logo that were sold at Shell gas stations worldwide). Greenpeace accused Shell of using Lego’s good reputation in the hope to transfer it onto their own company:

“Shell’s global advertising deal with Lego is part of a carefully thought-out strategy by Shell to buy friends who can make its controversial arctic drilling plans look acceptable and misleadingly associate it with positive values. Lego is one of the most beloved and admired toy companies in the world, and Shell knows that this deal will not only increase profits, but also improve the reputation of a company known for recklessly threatening the fragile arctic ecosystem. (Greenpeace, 2014)

Lego was taken completely by surprise by this attack and had to come up with a plan to handle the situation. Lego released at statement by CEO Jørgen Vid Knudstorp on their website on the same day that the video was published. He stated that Greenpeace is using Lego to target Shell and is dragging his company into a dispute that has nothing to do with them. He argued that the activist group should communicate with Shell directly and leave Lego out of it. Knudstorp made it clear that Lego would not bow to the pressure and continue their cooperation with Shell, which was established well over 50 years ago (Knudstorp, 2014). 

This was obviously not what Greenpeace wanted to hear and so they intensified their promotion. In addition to the video they created a website with an online petition that people could sign to show their support for Greenpeace’ demand to drop Shell. Furthermore, the environmental group used their social media networks to organize protests and post pictures of their fight against the oil giant. Activists dressed up as Lego figures gathered in front of Shell gas stations with banners and others built giant Lego animals in front of Shell’s London headquarters, all of which created a lot of attention around Lego – and not in a good way. 

The campaign went on for three months and in the beginning of October Lego finally announced that they would not be renewing the marketing contract with Shell, which will end in 2016. More than a million people had signed the online petition at this point and the video had collected more than six million views. Greenpeace was, of course, delighted with this outcome and praised Lego for making the right choice. 

Continue reading to find out how the Internet has changed and facilitated activist movements and what companies can learn from Lego’s dilemma.    

Greenpeace and Lego – What can be learned?

While the first part dealt with the general question of what online activism is and what happened in the Greenpeace campaign, we are now looking at how the Internet has changed or even facilitated activist movements. 

The case of Lego and Greenpeace clearly shows how activists use the relatively new online tools to their advantage. Lego was caught off guard by the campaign and had no time to prepare how to handle the situation. The increasing amount of pressure, media attention and the sheer vastness of people supporting the campaign eventually caused Lego to cave and abandon the partnership. Even though there are no published records that would indicate a decline of share price or sales due to the negative attention, many people clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the toy manufacturer online and called on people to boycott Lego. (See Greenpeace Facebook page, 2014: “Not cool Lego, not cool!”, “Shame on you Shell and LEGO”, “I think I am going to have to stop buying Lego for my boys now!”, etc.)

One should keep in mind that Greenpeace is a rather relentless opponent, who will stop at almost nothing to achieve their goals. They are a globally recognized activist group that have established a large following over the years and therefore have great social resources to help support their causes. As Skapinker from the Financial Times (2014, p.1) pointed out, 

“I don’t criticize Lego for its surrender. When Greenpeace targets a company, its executives have to decide how much time to spend fighting it.”

However, firms need to be aware that not only these globally established activists can harm their brands, but basically any individual with access to the Internet. So what can firms learn from this case? 

Global Audience

As Berthon et al. (2012) point out, in the age of social media local events hardly ever stay local but are accessible to a global audience. In the case of Lego and Greenpeace, the activist group would most likely have focused all their efforts on the Danish population if the Internet had not been at their disposal. Lego Group’s headquarters are located in Copenhagen, so getting the support of local people and organize demonstrations and protests would have been the best way to get the company’s attention. Lego would still have been under attack and would have had to deal with the situation, however it would have been far less critical for the toy manufacturer as media attention would have been confined to Denmark.

Thanks to the Internet and social media though, the campaign easily attracted support from all over the world with only a couple of mouse-clicks. The reason for this was not only Greenpeace who published the content but also supporters who shared it with their network of friends.  

Therefore, Berthon et al. (2012) advise companies to keep in mind how quickly a local problem can turn into a global brand crisis. Consistent monitoring of a firms environment and crisis plans are as important as simply being aware of this change brought on by the Internet and adapting the overall strategy accordingly.    

Call for Transparency

“If there is one truism driving Web 2.0 branding, it is that everything that can be exposed will be exposed” (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p.198). People have always asked for transparency of companies, however before the Internet it was easier for firms to hide the things they did not want to become published. Fournier & Avery (2011) explain that access and availability of content empowers consumers and individuals and that anyone with an interest in a topic can figure out when a company is misrepresenting themselves. Once these things are discovered, there is nothing to keep them from spreading online like wildfire. 

In the case of Lego, Shell and Greenpeace transparency was an issue as well. While Shell and Lego did not hide their partnership, many consumers were not aware of its existence. Yet the crucial factor that Greenpeace wanted to expose was that Shell was using Lego’s popularity and good reputation to put their own company into a better light by association with the beloved toy manufacturer.

Hence, if a company wants to retain a positive image and reputation, transparency is key. If they are not honest about their dealings, people will find out and will call them on it, which can have drastic negative implications, while honesty and openness are often rewarded with trust and endorsement. 

According to Fournier & Avery (2011) this call for transparency can “serve as a stimulus for positive change” (p.199), since no company would openly admit to unsound practices. Many companies such as Unilever and Kraft Foods have therefore already improved their dealings regarding sustainable raw materials and sourcing, business ethics and health and hopefully many companies will follow these examples in the future.    

Surrender Power online

Another point that can be taken from the case is the loss of control and power firms experience on the Internet. Of course this does not only apply to online activism but also to other content that is produced and distributed, yet the case illustrates the issue very well. 

As mentioned before, Lego was taken completely by surprise when the Greenpeace campaign was published. They were suddenly confronted with a video that cast a damning light onto their company, with no control over the content and the rapidness in which in spread online. Also, they could not prevent Greenpeace from spreading their message or control what individuals said about their brand.

Armelini & Villanueva (2011) touch upon this issue as well. They explain that earlier marketing and branding was a one-way communication in which the companies had all the power and instilled whatever image they wanted in people’s minds. Nowadays, this has turned into a two-way communication that allows people to express their opinions about products and brands to others. While this can be positive word of mouth in reviews or recommendations, it can just as easily lead to people bad-mouthing brands or products.    

Online Activism is easy

A final argument that can be taken from the case presented is that the Internet has facilitated activist movements. Taking Greenpeace as an example, it can be said with confidence that the environmentalist group and their activities are notorious and do not sit well with everybody. Most people do not only associate Greenpeace with risky and disputable protests, but also have the activists roaming the streets, asking for donations and recruiting supporters in mind.  

The new technologies have made it a lot easier to find support for their campaigns. While people felt uncomfortable being approached on the street, they can now participate from home. The focus online has shifted from financial support (even though donations are still needed and graciously accepted) to verbal support such as signatures for petitions and sharing the content. People can do this for free, which is seemingly why a lot more people engage in activist activities online than they did before the Internet. Being part of a movement now only requires a few clicks, yet people are rewarded with a feeling of belonging to a group and fighting for a greater good. It is therefore likely that activist behavior online will increase in the future (Yang, 2009).  

Summing up…

In conclusion, it can be said that the Internet has had a great impact on individuals and firms alike. Not only has it changed the way in which we communicate in our private lives, it has changed the power dynamic between consumers and marketers and provoked a shift from one-way to two-way communication. This development has also given rise to anti-branding movements and activists have taken to the web to fight for their causes. 

Most of the points mentioned in the discussion part (transparency, global audience and loss of control online) are obviously not only related to online activism but describe general implications the Internet has brought for firms. However, the case illustrates all of these issues very well and demonstrates how Lego as the affected company handled the situation. The toy manufacturer got off rather lightly through ending their long-term partnership; except for the loss of an estimated 116 million dollar deal (Vaughan, 2014) (which by comparison to the company’s annual sales of 4.6 billion in 2014 seems relatively small) there was no permanent damage to the brand.  

For Greenpeace the Lego campaign was a huge success since they got the toy manufacturer to cut ties with the oil giant. They have now moved on to new targets, such as Santander Bank (Greenpeace claims they loaned millions of dollars to a paper company called APRIL, which is associated with the destruction of Indonesian Rainforest) and the Australian Government (Fossil companies have published plans to drill for oil in the Great Barrier Reef, which Greenpeace fights to prevent at all cause). Again, social media campaigns have been rolled out, including online petitions and protests. It remains to be seen how long these organizations will fight before eventually caving into public pressure.    


Academic Journals:

Armelini, G. and Villanueva, J., 2011. Adding Social Media to the Marketing Mix. IESE Insight, no. 9, pp. 29-36, Available at: <> [Accessed 4 February 2015]

Berthon, P., Pitt, L., Plangger, K. and Shapiro, D., 2012. Marketing meets Web 2.0, social media, and creative consumers: Implications for international marketing strategy. Business Horizons, vol. 55, pp.261-271, Available at: <> [Accessed 8 February 2015] 

Christodoulides, G., 2009. Branding in the post-internet era. SAGE, vol. 9, pp.141-144, Available at: <> [Accessed 4 February 2015]

Fournier, S. and Avery, J., 2011. The uninvited brand. Business Horizons, vo. 54, pp.193-207, Available at: <> [Accessed 11 February 2015] 

Krishnamurthy, S. and Kucuk, S., 2009. Anti-branding on the internet. Journal of Business Research, vol. 62, pp. 1119-1126, 

Available at: <> [Accessed 2 February 2015]

Yang, G., 2009. Online Activism. Journal of Democracy, vol. 20, pp. 33-36, Available at: <> [Accessed 2 February 2015] 


Greenpeace, 2014. How is Shell using Lego and why should we stop them? [online], Available at: <> [Accessed 7 February 2015]

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Knudstorp, J. 2014. Comment on Greenpeace campaign and the LEGO brand. [online] LEGO. Availbale at: <> [Accessed 7 February 2015]

Matlack, C., 2014. Greenpeace’s Arctic Drilling Video Sinks Lego’s Deal With Shell, The Guardian, [online], Available at: <> [Accessed 7 February 2015]

Skapinker, M., 2014. Everything is not awesome about Greenpeace’s assault on Lego, Financial Times, [online], Available at: <> [Accessed 8 February 2015]

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Vaughan, A., 2014. Greenpeace urges LEGO to end Shell partnership. [online] The Guardian. Available at: < <> [Accessed 11 February 2015]

Vaughan, A., 2014. Lego end Shell partnership following Greenpeace campaign. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 February 2015]