Shades of Greenpeace

The venerable environmental pressure group looks to strengthen its profile in the press

Brian Fitzgerald/Courtesy of Greenpeace

Amsterdam—An unseasonable rain pours down onto our Mercedes-Benz as it winds around Amsterdam’s picturesque canals, weaving in and out of what must be the world’s most entitled cyclists. If Amsterdam is a brand (as it must surely be), then this symbolically proletarian bike culture is part of it. It’s branding that has brought me, a journalist who has dabbled in “green” consulting, here to be interviewed for a job as a media analyst with Greenpeace International. The venerable environmental pressure group is looking to strengthen its profile in the press.

Greenpeace occupies part of a big building on Ottho Heldringstraat that looks and feels like a 1970s technical college. The blond woman behind the reception desk greets me, then informs me of the location of the smoke room, just in case. Three others will mention the smoke room during the next twenty minutes. Environmentalists, sure, but this is Old Europe.

On the second floor, an assortment of desks are clustered together as if in a newsroom. The workers are young and ethnically diverse—Indian, African, Dutch, Japanese. Beyond the newsroom lies a walled-in conference space where four people wait patiently. They are Greenpeace International’s senior media and communications team. Among them is a tall Canadian expatriate named Tony, who came to Greenpeace from Vancouver and now heads up the research department.

I begin by telling them that their brand is tired—a twentieth-century trademark in need of a twenty-first-century makeover. I want them to turn the central notion of No Logo on its head by adopting capitalist marketing without the empty consumerism. “Naomi Klein is dead wrong,” I declare. “Brands are here for good and Greenpeace must compete with them. Greenpeace is a brand and it most certainly is a logo too. And that is okay.” I pause. “It’s a… lifestyle identity for people who want to save the planet.”

I list the requirements for the transformation: a new logo, a new tagline, a new target demographic (eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds), synergies with other ngos. “When people think of you, they think of stunts. They think of unfurling banners and trailing whaling ships,” I say. “We need to show people that Greenpeace gets results.” I’m basing the last point on an informal poll I conducted before leaving Canada. I asked a group of smart, well-educated friends to list Greenpeace’s accomplishments. No one could cite any.

As we talk, it becomes clear that there are differences over tactics within the organization. “From what I can tell,” I say, “Europeans don’t have the patience for the consumer-driven market solutions that Americans respond to, like energy-efficient light bulbs.” Everyone nods. “But America post-9/11 gets freaked out by action that is too confrontational. They use ‘eco-terrorists’ to describe [activists].” This time, only Tony nods.

I attempt to break the awkwardness by detailing a commercial I’ve devised, something viral for the web. The ad opens with a low shot of water flowing out toward the horizon. From outside the frame comes the sound of an approaching motor. A Greenpeace speedboat flies by, ablaze with the rainbow logo. The person driving seems to be going somewhere. Where? To where the planet needs saving, that’s where. As the boat exits the frame, a list of Greenpeace’s accomplishments fades in and out. Cue the upbeat music and these words:

People Protecting the Planet. Since 1971.

The three espressos I’ve downed are kicking in now. I outline a new website divided into clever navigational headings such as Land, Sea, and Air. There should be a section for podcasts, I say, another for GreenpeaceTV that will include video reports from the front lines, and —the pièce de résistance—one for Greenpeace Gear. “If there’s one thing young people like,” I explain breathlessly, “it’s wearing their affiliation. Look at peta and Make Poverty History. They’ve got bracelets, T-shirts—all kinds of stuff. They’re marketing masters!”

My presentation is over. A few smiles emerge, the first from my compatriot Tony. I wait while the group goes outside to chat. When they return, they tell me they’re considering me for the position of Chief Media Officer. Would I be interested in doing my presentation again for someone else?

My new audience is Sonia, an interim communications boss from Australia. She likes what she hears but says she’s suggested as much herself. “Getting it through a place like this,” she says, motioning toward the cluster of desks, “that’s the hard part.”

We head to the infamous smoking room, which turns out to be the building’s rooftop. A group of older men, some with tattoos, a few with earrings, sits furtively at a table. They stop talking as we walk by. The Aussie informs me that they are front-line activists—the people who do direct action and work on Greenpeace boats. “They don’t like talking about rebranding,” she says. “You’ll have a tough time with them.” Exhaling smoke from her third cigarette, she announces, “I’m going back to Australia.”

Downstairs, we part, and a woman from human resources informs me of yet another meeting. This one is in Faro, on the southern coast of Portugal.

I jet into the country first-class, perhaps because the ticket is last-minute, feeling out of place as the well-heeled chat with an attendant who seems to know everyone by their first names. For many, Faro is a summer retreat; when we arrive, Land Rovers await these people, while I catch a cab to the Ria Park Garden Hotel. It is here that I meet Francesca, an Italian woman who is Greenpeace’s new head of communications.

Francesca’s hair is dark, her skin well-tanned, and she is dressed Euro-smart for the beach. We sit on an open terrace with a stunning view out to the sea. Unfortunately, my missteps begin immediately. As we discuss the future of Greenpeace and how hard it will be to introduce change, I mention that I’d heard from someone that Gerd Leipold, the organization’s executive director, is difficult to work with. Francesca snaps back, “Gerd is a lovely man of incredible talent. I don’t know what this person is talking about. We get along very well.”

I recover momentarily, running through the ideas that went over so well in Amsterdam. But, recalling the Old World-New World divide I’d seen there, I stumble into a rant about being bored with the European attitude toward America. “Europeans misunderstand Americans,” I say. “If Greenpeace is ever going to make up all of the cancelled memberships in the US, they will have to come to terms with that.”

Wrong. “The problem,” Francesca says, “is that America doesn’t understand Europe.” I try to return the conversation to rebranding, but it’s hopeless: America means Bush, and therefore Iraq. Europe is better off without them.

This will be an issue for Greenpeace. Everyone speaks at great length of rebuilding in America but, from where I sit, if European environmentalists aren’t willing to meet the world’s biggest polluter halfway, the initiative is doomed. I decide to throw the gig.

As Francesca continues talking, I tune out. Glancing toward the swaying palm trees near the veranda, I think fondly of a recent trip to Nashville—the bad food, the friendly white trash, and the down-home music. I suddenly long for the backwoods of North America. Rebranding Greenpeace, I realize, is better left to someone else.

John Turner