Case Studies (from Uni), Coffee

Nespresso – A case of successful greenwashing

Hey friends! So, today’s post was originally written as a case study assignment for my Public Relations class that I’m taking right now, but I felt it was a fitting topic for this blog so I adapted it a little and am now sharing with you all. Don’t worry, I did check with my prof that sharing this is allowed by the University. Single-use coffee pods (such as Nespresso) are a topic often lamented by me in real life and on this blog, despite my own use of them at work (which I hate to admit, btw). The incredible convenience of coffee pods is something I’ve been unable to pull myself away from – similar to my ongoing battle with plastic bags, a war I’ve been sometimes winning and sometimes losing for many years. So please understand that this post is not meant to shame anyone in any way, it is meant to discuss a confusing and often annoying topic – greenwashing that goes on by big companies who like to over-represent the environmental initiatives they take on. 

I should also note that many, many companies engage in this type of behaviour. However, I generally choose to stay away from expose-style posts because A) I try to keep this blog pretty positive and expose posts tend to feel more negative, and because B) I believe more in promoting what you love, instead of bashing what you hate. However, there are appropriate occasions for talking about the negatives.

I’ve left my “conclusion” with things that PR practitioners can learn from Nespresso’s campaign in this post because, as much as I hate to admit it, Nespresso did a fucking incredible job of greenwashing. Also, readers may find it interesting to read my takeaways as someone in the field, to get a glimpse into how this whole business tends to work.

So, with that, please enjoy this case-study-turned-blog-post.

Nespresso is a company that has made disposable aluminium coffee pods since 1986 and is present in over 60 countries. Nespresso’s purpose is to allow consumers to easily make espresso using speciality coffee makers and coffee pods. Through various methods and with varying degrees of success, Nespresso attempts to align itself as an environmentally-conscious brand. Since 2015, the company has been pushing to implement convenient worldwide recycling programs and convince the public to feel good about using the recyclable pods.

Nespresso started publishing videos aimed towards English-speaking, “Western” countries like Australia and the United States about their recycling program 2-3 years ago on YouTube and TV and has powered up their combined marketing and public relations (PR) efforts within the last year. YouTube videos and TV ads seem to be the primary delivery method for these public relations and marketing campaigns. Their video titled Nespresso Capsule Recycling Program USA best encapsulates the company’s PR efforts regarding recycling the pods because it is not glamourous in any way and is purely informational about the recycling process. Interestingly, the PR campaign has no flashy hashtag or slogan attached to it, while the related marketing campaign does.

Nespresso’s recycling PR videos are generally un-glamourous. In the previously mentioned video, the founder and president of one pod recycling plant appears on screen to narrate part of the video but does not appear to be a polished speaker – lending credibility to the campaign. Contrast this with Nespresso’s high-glamour marketing campaigns about recycling that involve George Clooney, and the choice to forgo aesthetics seems deliberate.

Involving George Clooney, a known humanitarian, in Nespresso’s recent marketing over the last year is calculated and, one must assume, meant to springboard off the earlier public relations efforts. The combination of the un-glamourous recycling plants, followed by later marketing videos of Clooney suggests Nespresso first wanted to convince their audience that Nespresso is truly committed to making a difference. They then drive home the pretty, feel-good idea of being part of saving the planet through recycling – just like good-guy George.

Unfortunately for Nespresso, there were many challenges working against the PR campaign. Mainly, people already thought coffee pods were bad for the environment, and Nespresso is owned by Nestle, a company whose reputation has been one of blatant disregard for human rights.

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Perhaps the only factor working in Nespresso’s favor for this recycling campaign was that other major coffee pod brands are much more difficult to recycle. Consumers must do much of the work to recycle plastic pods, whereas Nespresso only asks their consumers to return the pods to a drop-off point or fill a special bag with the pods, then put them in the regular recycling bin. This is a major benefit for consumers and looks like a genuine effort by Nespresso to reduce the environmental impact of their pods.

The resounding consensus in online comment sections and articles is that while Nespresso pods are not good for the environment, at least they are easy to recycle, and are not as bad as the plastic pods – which are lambasted everywhere. However, news outlets and environmentally-focused blogs have generally given balanced pro/con articles for Nespresso’s pods, sometimes even leaning towards positive attitudes with coverage like Nespresso bid to recycle coffee pods. Comments on the Nespresso recycling videos are generally positive – some commenters even claim they switched to Nespresso because of their recycling programs! It should be noted that other Nespresso campaigns do not always receive such accolades – evidenced by comments on their video about responsible coffee farming, The Choices We Make.

After examining Nespresso’s campaign to improve public opinion around the environmental impacts of their pods, there are a few main takeaways for public relations practitioners. First, use visuals to create emotion for the audience.  It is not enough to say the company is committed to a cause. You must show this to the audience and make them feel that this is true. This could mean depicting a scene that is less visually appealing than what the company usually shows if it creates an honest feeling.

Second, PR and marketing efforts are often intertwined in the effort to steer public opinion (and later profit from this). While different and distinct, the two can be very successful together.

Lastly, to shift an opinion, a brand must make a genuine effort towards the cause in question and must convey the message in a way the audience is willing to accept (lest the company be skewered in the media). I believe the Nespresso recycling campaign was successful because Nespresso simultaneously made a worldwide effort to be the most conveniently recyclable coffee pod company and launched an authentic-looking public relations campaign at the same time.

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