The Confusing Case Of Olympic Brand Sustainability

A study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science in July 2012 found that the rate of green marketing in the marketplace rises and falls consistently with key indicators of economic growth, such as GDP. According to Lee Ahern, assistant professor of Advertising and Public Relations at Penn State’s College of Communications and one of the three primary researchers in the study, “marketers have their fingers on the pulse of public sentiment. Using the level of green advertising as a proxy for general environmental concern, we can see that economic trends significantly predict this ‘greenness’ indicator.”

Right now, the state of the green marketing industry is very much in flux. The world economy is still slowly struggling to emerge from its four-year depression, the euro is at an all-time low with speculation of collapse, and America is teetering on the brink of government loan defaults. It stands to reason that, taking this study into account, the last thing on people’s minds would be Coca-Cola’s recycling program. 

And yet, that is exactly what’s happening. Several big marketing sponsors have come under fire for their brand-touting at history’s “most sustainable Olympics ever,” according to David Cameron. In addition to Coca-Cola’s Move to the Beat branding campaign, the company has also launched a campaign highlighting its health and sustainability credentials “in an effort to ward off ongoing criticism of its sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympic Games,” states Marketing Week. But not only is Coca-Cola pointing out its recycling efforts in this sustainability campaign – interestingly, it is also touting healthy drink options and the number of people it employs in the UK. 

Proctor & Gamble is doing much of the same thing by hosting several Capital Clean-Up events across London after the games, utilizing brands such as Ariel, Flash and Febreze. The events will be branded to each product specifically, to make consumers not only aware of P&G as a socially responsible marketer, but also to actively demonstrate the benefits of their products and highlight how P&G can put London to work. 

This trend raises several questions, but most notably the issue of when jobs became a central part of sustainable marketing. In light of the global economy, it makes sense that brands would highlight how they’re working to get people working. However, using jobs as part of a green marketing campaign suggests that brands are taking a broader view of what constitutes environmental (and global) health. 

The Olympics has overshadowed the state of the world economy at the moment, and brands are getting more exposure than ever through fully integrated campaigns and huge sponsorship packages. It’s only fair that consumers would demand something more than simple branding messages, and sustainability seems a natural extension of this desire (especially considering the games are being held in such a large city). However, the focus on jobs also suggests that brands are not entirely forgetful of economic health as a part of global welfare. 

The definition of a “green marketing” campaign is obviously changing, and is called into question more than ever in light of the Olympics. Perhaps this new definition will change the way marketers approach their sustainability efforts, and thus, the amount of attention that consumers pay to them.

Perhaps we’ll come to realize that global health does not mean a mutually exclusive environment and economy. If so, the contents of that study may need to be reexamined.

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