What we can learn from Extinction Rebellion about growth and brands


I hesitated before writing this post.  Could there be anything more cynical than studying and co-opting the methods of Extinction Rebellion for commercial gain? Given the personal sacrifice made by so many activists who’ve tried to shock the world into dealing with the existential threat of unchecked commercialism, probably not.

Then I realised there is another way we can learn from this movement that blasted onto the scene in 2019, with an impact most marketeers dream about. 

Worldwide Search Volumes for Extinction Rebellion (Blue) and Climate Change (Red) - Source: Google Trends

Worldwide Search Volumes for Extinction Rebellion (Blue) and Climate Change (Red) - Source: Google Trends

Firstly, it can force us to take a hard look at our own role in tackling the climate crisis we are facing, and how we can change the advice we give clients and the ideas we create to make a positive change to the world around us.   In their recent open letter to the industry some of the organisers of Extinction Rebellion made this same point with a call to arms for those of us working in the industry to create positive change.

And secondly, once we have got that right, we can use learnings from what Extinction Rebellion have achieved in a very short space of time to sharpen our skills and techniques.


It is actually quite an empowering thought process. We are privileged to be in a position at work to do more to change things than we can achieve at home when we just change our own personal behaviours. That’s because we can influence potentially millions of people with powerful ideas that get shared and discussed, and we can influence industry to recognise and meet emerging consumer needs and opinions.  That’s a potentially much bigger deal than no longer buying plastic stemmed q-tips or other micro-consumerism changes we make ourselves (although we should do those as well!)

Change will happen more rapidly if we accept that consumer consumption driven growth is part of the problem.  Encouraging people to do more, eat more, drink more, drive more, buy more, upgrade more, replace more - all puts a greater burden on the planet’s limited resources, and stresses the already crumbling ecosystem we rely on.  The simplistic view that advertising’s only role is to get people to buy things they don’t need, overstates its power.  Advertising is a tool. It is how we choose to use it that is important. Increasing consumption and consumerism is not the only role that brands, branding and communications can play in culture.  Instead branding, design, communications, social media and advertising can be used to influence and create value in other ways. 

Ways advertising can be used to solve the problem

  1. Creating intangible value - we can help people value the products they buy more, by building a perception of value, that isn’t solely reliant on environmentally costly physical components of a product.  

  2. Helping people choose - we can help people make a choice between brands, making them more distinctive and memorable, by addressing new needs for products that are sustainable. 

  3. Changing behaviour - we can help people change their behaviour and encourage lower consumption and better choices.  The rapid switching away from single use plastics is evidence of people’s ability to change behaviour.

  4. Move to experience - we can help customers see the value in experiences and great service as the benefit of buying into brands, rather than purchasing goods being seen as the only possible reward.


Things we can learn from the Extinction Rebellion movement

We can also learn from the incredible impact of Extinction Rebellion in a very short space of time.  There have been lots of interesting tactics and techniques deployed.  Some of the highlights have been.

  1. Visual stunts that are newsworthy - sit down take overs that shut down city streets have a unique power to get attention.   Whilst getting arrested as a consequence of fame is not something most marketeers would put up with,  Extinction Rebellion have also used impactful visual stunts to get the message across. Whether that’s a big pink boat with “Tell the truth” emblazoned on the side, or activists super glueing themselves to the London Stock Exchange

  2. Modern identity - Extinction Rebellion also created a distinctive, modern and appealing visual identity that would appeal to supporters, but also didn’t pull its punches or compromise on its core message. Very often cause-based marketing prioritises the seriousness of the message and as a result fails to create brand imagery that consumers would be happy to have as part of their lives or share on their own personal social channels

  3. Powerful and easy to copy logo - The Extinction Rebellion is a work of genius.  It perfectly encapsulates the core message of the movement…that time is running out to save the planet.  And it is a bold visual symbol that is instantly recognisable.  Its real genius, though, is that it is very easy to replicate in any media even if it is just some electrical tape and a traffic light!

  4. Provocative memorable idea - but the most powerful part of Extinction Rebellions campaign is the simple, memorable and shareable idea that drives activism - that we are experiencing mass extinction and that rebellion is needed now to prevent it.

Whether we can harness  the persuasive power of creative communications to tackle the climate emergency, will depend on our individual and collective will to do so.  And it will require tough conversations and sacrifices.  We will need to ask our selves the question whether working with a new client, or answering a new brief - is this going to have a positive or negative consequence for the environment. The future of the fragile planet we live on relies on action now, not tomorrow.  This is a principle we need to live by.  And as Sir John Hegarty says “A principle isn’t a principle until it has cost you something”.  We will come to realise that the short term cost of acting now is far far less than the long term cost of doing nothing.