Palm oil and Christmas

We took an unusual approach for Christmas 2018, to spread the message of destructive palm oil by an unconventional method, whilst meeting multiple objectives for two very separate organisations: Greenpeace and the supermarket Iceland.

Marcus Watson

Strategist Mother London


Greenpeace wanted the UK to understand what palm oil is and how it is made. It is a raw ingredient that exists in about 50% of all products on a supermarket shelf, a ubiquitous substance that can be found in everything from chocolate and shampoo to lipstick and biodiesel. Many see palm oil as the wonderkid of lipids. However, palm oil also has a dirty secret: the majority of palm oil production causes widespread destruction of tropical rainforests. The resulting loss of habitats has knock-on effects on a wide range of flora and fauna.

At the beginning of the year the average consumer was not conscious of this. Greenpeace’s aim was twofold. Firstly, to garner consumer support in order to exert pressure on the companies using the largest amounts of palm oil globally, forcing them into revealing and cleaning up their dirty palm oil supply chains. And secondly, for awareness of the problem to be as high as that of the damage plastic is doing to our oceans, a cause that has had the widespread publicity that only a David Attenborough-narrated documentary series can bring.

Add to this objective the most important time of the year for advertising: Christmas. A time of loving and giving, and rampant consumption. Christmas is a ‘must win’ season for brands, with a focus on what to buy for that perfect gift or occasion, with little credence given to the effect this has on the planet. It has turned into an arms race that tests the creative prowess of some of the most ambitious brands and finest agencies in the land. Since the ‘John Lewisification’ of the season, which kicked off in 2007, there has been bar set for retailers especially, to deliver that all-important winning Christmas campaign, one that lights the hearts of the nation and makes the tills ring louder than in “Are you being served?”

We took a very unusual approach for Christmas 2018, one that spread the message of destructive palm oil by an unconventional method, whilst managing to meet multiple objectives for two very separate organisations: Greenpeace and the supermarket Iceland.  

of all products on a supermarket shelf contain palm oil
increase driven in those seeking information online about palm oil
of all online conversations occupied in the week of launch

A powerful (joint) force for good

With the task simple - make the UK aware that palm oil is destructive to tropical rainforest environments - we had to get a couple of basic building blocks in place. Make sure people know what palm oil is, and make sure they know how it is produced. All whilst getting them emotionally invested in the subject.

To start with we made the issue relatable. We created a character, representative of all rainforest wildlife. Rang-tan is our lovable guide to the effect palm oil cultivation is having on rainforests. We told her story through a children’s rhyme, both in a 90-second animation, narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Dame Emma Thompson, and in a printed children’s story book.

So far, so good. The launch of the Rang-tan film for Greenpeace generated a good degree of interest in the topic, and an easily shareable asset also helped to energise Greenpeace’s broad base of supporters and ambassadors. But with a challenge this extensive, this was just the first step of the journey.

With a blend of different communications disciplines at our disposal, and a range of external influencing factors, we found that making one big plan at the beginning of our journey wasn’t appropriate. Instead we took the approach of making many incremental decisions along the way, taking up opportunities that emerged off the back of a beautiful story with an amazing cause at its heart.

This led to a world first for Rang-tan: an advert recycled from one brand to another. The film first used by Greenpeace in August was then deployed for Iceland supermarket in November with a different message, highlighting that Iceland’s own-brand products were palm oil free. Having spent months attempting to get the Iceland version of the advert cleared for broadcast use, ending with it falling foul of Clearcast, we took the unusual decision to be transparent about the film failing to secure approval for UK broadcast. Iceland was proactive with that information, after all, we had nothing to hide.  

The Iceland Rang-tan film has been viewed over 70m times and in the week of launch, Rang-tan occupied 88% of all online conversations about the hotly debated topic of Christmas advertising, all this with a miniscule media budget. The film is also on-track to be the most viewed, shared and commented-on Christmas ad of all time. Rang-tan’s plight, the destruction caused by palm oil and what consumers can do to make a difference were the subjects of thousands of news articles over the course of two weeks. A story in The Guardian was read over 1m times and even a trade publication had over 500k views on the topic.

Rang-tan appeared on every news channel and morning TV programme and has very much driven an almost 10,000% increase in those seeking information online about palm oil. Iceland is also doing a roaring trade in their palm oil-free Luxury Mince Pies, up 11% YOY, and Iceland’s ad was best-received with consumers, scoring it top on 10 of the 12 factors, and most likely to influence consumer purchasing according to Kantar Millward Brown’s annual consumer research into the effectiveness of Christmas advertising campaigns. Awareness in the UK about palm oil, its production and negative environmental consequences, is at an all-time high.

Mother London
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Guest Author

Marcus Watson

Strategist Mother London


Marcus is a Strategist at Mother. Since joining the agency, he’s helped Nokia re-establish themselves in the global smartphone market, supported Sky as they turn over a new leaf, and worked with Greenpeace & Iceland to bring a Rang-tan into the nation’s hearts. In a previous life he worked at a Third Sector brand agency, repositioning many UK charities including Samaritans and Arthritis Research UK, and launching the newly formed National Education Union.