JWT has just unveiled a new commercial for oil company Shell. The 90 second ad tells the story of how Shell employee Jaap van Ballegooien was inspired to conceive a new drilling technology. The Snakewell system, which can drill around obstructions, was, the ad reveals, inspired by a bendy straw. In addition, a ten minute version of the same story, to be shown online, has been shot by Kevin McDonald, director of The Last King of Scotland. It ends with the line "Could we make a film about you?"
"Unlike BMW Films, which was simply branded content, this project is very much about Shell and from Shell," explains Tim Ashton of Antidote, who co-wrote the long-format version. "We're encouraging people in the company to volunteer stories about how ideas and innovations are conjured. This campaign is about Shell's culture." Visitors to the Shell.com/realenergy site can watch the film or play related games devised by Digit. There is also a series of illustrated press and poster ads that all point out how Shell is actively involved in finding new ways to produce fuel and deal with its CO2 emissions. "We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers", claims the copy in one of these ads. It's all a long way from telling us to put a tiger in our tank.
In terms of corporate message, the new campaign exemplifies a big turn around for Big Oil. Just a few years ago Shell (along with ExxonMobil, Ford Motors and Texaco among others) was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, an outspoken industry group formed specifically to debunk the notion of global warming. The GCC was disbanded in 2002 and even oil companies now generally accept that global warming is indeed upon us and changes need to be implemented. But the first change to be made hasn't been so much in the practices of the major oil companies, but in how they present themselves to the world. Take, for example, BP – which used to stand for British Petroleum. In 2000, it underwent a massive rebranding, devised by brand design and strategy agency Landor and ad agency Ogilvy. BP, we were told, would now stand for "Beyond Petroleum", the letters rendered in friendly lowercase next to the new, flower-like "Helios mark".
David Fowler is Ogilvy's creative director on BP. He started on the business in January 2000 and wrote the "Beyond Petroleum" line. "The BP voice has always been fact-based, not hype," he claims. "It's humble and doesn't over-promise. It's realistic and straightforward. Both at Ogilvy and within BP we refer to the work as ‘messages' not ‘advertising': it just helps us stay focused on the fact that we are communicating with a sceptical audience, and we owe them the truth, as we see it. The subject matter has evolved over the years, but not the tone or personality. In fact, the tone is evident in the form we use. The print look is white with black Univers type, very basic. It's short because we want to be respectful of our reader's time. In television, we let ordinary people voice the feelings and desires of the public. We never want to be patronising or slick."
At the time of the rebrand, a Greenpeace spokesperson suggested that BP stood, in fact, for "burning the planet" and pointed out that the company spent more on their rebrand than they had on renewable energy in the previous year. According to Fowler, "The promise is to go ‘beyond the ordinary expectations of an oil company'. The line has a commitment, and a lot of tension in trying to fulfil it. That's why nearly every message we create contains the line ‘it's a start'. It's a reminder that the task is epic, and that it's a long, complex road we're on."
Greenpeace, as you might expect, remains implacable. Press officer Nigel Campbell dismisses both Shell and BP's positioning of themselves as renewable energy companies as corporate greenwash—"A pejorative term," according to Wikipedia, "that critics use to describe the activity of giving a positive public image to putatively environmentally unsound practices." Campbell continues: "Shell spends a tiny 0.06% of its revenues investing in renewable energy, but a whopping 70% searching for more oil and gas.
To add insult to climate injury, they divert even more money into propaganda to convince us all that they are all about renewables. Shell and other oil companies should walk their talk."
So are BP and Shell saying one thing and doing another? "For a company that claims to have moved ‘beyond petroleum' BP has managed to spill an awful lot of it into the Arctic tundra," wrote environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot in June last year, following BP's admission a month earlier that it had allowed 270,000 gallons of crude oil to seep across one of the world's most sensitive habitats. BP's repositioning had raised false expectations. "Had this been Exxon," continues Monbiot, "the news would have surprised no-one. But BP's rebranding, like Shell's, has been so effective that you could be forgiven for believing it had become an environmental pressure group. These companies have used the vast profits from their petroleum business to create the impression they are abandoning it."
So why make these promises? "The product these companies are selling is a commodity and there's no difference between one company's product and another's," states branding expert Wally Olins, chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants. "There's no rational reason why you should choose one over another. What matters is where and how conveniently the product can be accessed. That's a rational factor in making a choice. Beyond that is the emotional factor. You drive along the motorway and what some brands seem to say is ‘I'm nicer than they are, buy me'. We don't like words like ‘seduction' so we use the term ‘marketing' instead, but essentially that's what it comes down to."
Olins believes that BP's rebrand set a standard and style that was brave at the time and that others have copied. He also believes that BP's CEO, Lord John Browne, genuinely wanted the company to change, a view backed up by Fowler. "Lord Browne stated in 1997 in a speech at Stanford that, in all likelihood climate change was caused by the burning of fossil fuels," Fowler says. "It was the first time any major energy company had publicly stated that. And remember, this was ten years ago when the science was much less conclusive than it is today. BP's competitors felt Browne had ‘left the church'. Nobody could imagine that an oil company would make such a statement. After that, just making an ordinary advertising campaign was not an option. Or at least, it would have been a wasted opportunity on a massive scale."
Fowler insists that "the leadership of BP, from the very beginning, was not interested in a new coat of paint. They wanted to help resolve the paradox of a world that wants energy and also wants a clean environment. That kind of intellectual courage speaks for itself: this company wanted to be different." Rather than just swallow what they were being told by the client, Fowler says that "Ogilvy dug into the facts to see if this desire was credible, and we came up with hundreds of astonishing proof points that we felt made their vision credible. We looked at the facts and felt that it wasn't just wishful thinking. They had the ability to say they were different."
In terms of the agency's working relationship with BP, he claims that "we're able to stand outside it and offer another point of view, and they have great respect for that. We push back, we question, we show options, we bring challenging ideas to the table. They welcome it. You have to have a partner willing to tell you the truth, to point out another side or a different way."
Like Fowler, creative director John Kenney, who worked on BP's documentary-style, man-in-the-street TV spots back in 2000, also thought that Browne genuinely wanted to change the way that BP operated. "I believed wholeheartedly in BP's message, that we could go—or at least work toward going—beyond petroleum," he wrote in a piece published in the New York Times last August. However, Kenney is now disillusioned: "I guess, looking at it now, ‘beyond petroleum' is just advertising.
It's become mere marketing—perhaps it always was—instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm."
Olins believes that the pressure in any big business to behave properly ultimately clashes with the competing pressure to come up with results. "This is not a deliberate attempt on the part of these companies to fool the public," he argues, "it's to do with a mismatch of two important priorities. If you don't deliver more profitability than you did last year, then brand value goes down and some bugger is going to take you over, and then what chance have you got of achieving your long term goals?"
Shell, it seems, has taken notice of BP's difficulties. Its new campaign doesn't promise to go beyond the oil business. Rather, it concentrates on how inventive they're being in finding previously inaccessible oil. One of the new press ads explains that Shell is extracting oil from sand in Athabasca, Canada. Ingenious? Greenpeace isn't convinced. "You need enormous amounts of energy to extract the oil from the sand," says Campbell. "There's a massive energy input needed." What about BP's practice of compressing and burying CO2 under the Algerian desert at the In Salah oil field? "We call it the get-out-of-jail-free card," says Campbell. "The only known way to fight climate change is to cut emissions, not bury them in the sand."
Ultimately, oil companies have their work cut out to convince us that they're ecologically sound businesses. Oil is an extractive industry, not a sustainable one. Monbiot points out that, although "oil companies have become more transparent, more responsive, less aggressive in their engagement with the public, the impact of their core business is much the same". He goes on to cite continuing bad practices such as Shell's flaring of gas from oil wells in Nigeria (officially banned in 1969 but still happening) and alleged human rights abuses associated with BP's Azerbaijan to Turkey pipeline.
"Visit bp.com," counters Fowler, "on it, you'll find their Sustainability Report, which shows what they're doing all over the world. You'll find an amazing collection of speeches, too, given by their leadership. It's an astonishing collection of intellectual capital, self-examination, and transparency." But it'll take more than a Sustainability Report to convince campaigners like Monbiot. "BP and Shell are to Exxon what New Labour is to the old Tories," he writes. "The language has changed, but the policies are pretty similar… it seems to me that this only makes them more dangerous."
However, Olins is more optimistic. "OK, so BP got over-excited and people have accused them of claiming to be doing things that they weren't," he says. "But in the end these companies will have to behave better, because companies that behave badly will be on the front page and that's damaging to equity. So the story has a happy ending: BP will have to do all these things now—and it will change the way the whole industry behaves."