From a public relations standpoint, oil companies have it tough these days. The price of gas in the United States is hovering between $3.50 – $4.00 a gallon while oil companies continue to report record profits. Environmental troubles also continue, with the most recent example being an oil spill off the coast of Brazil courtesy of Chevron (where profits doubled in the just reported quarter to $7.83 billion).
It was against this backdrop that I saw the following Chevron advertisement appear on my television set last week:
This is one incredibly tone-deaf advertisement. It actually made me angry.
Articulate, neatly-coiffed, and impeccably-dressed Chevron spokesperson “talks to us straight” as she addresses the concerns of a blue collar everyman. And by the end of 30 seconds, she’s convinced us that, hey, wow, we really are saying the same thing, aren’t we?
After seeing the ad, I went and did a bit of research into the campaign. Surely I wasn’t the only person who found this to be patronizing and inauthentic…
As it turns out, the initial ads first appeared about this time last year, and before the campaign had even launched it had already been dramatically spoofed. Watch the following video or read this New York Times article if you want to hear the whole story.
In fact, the anti-Chevron campaign that this series of advertisements spawned seems to be more powerful than the original campaign (and probably cost millions of dollars less to execute). For example, check out this website, which features over 200 fake print ads based on the campaign. There were also many spoofs of the ads themselves, like this one:
Which brings me to two questions:
1) Why the heck is Chevron still running this campaign?
2) More generally, why do oil companies like Chevron, BP (which spent $93 million on advertising during the height of the gulf oil spill), and Exxon keep wasting their money on advertising campaigns like this?
Advertising is the wrong medium for big oil. When an industry already viewed as disingenuous uses a medium to communicate a message that is also viewed by most people as disingenuous, what do you get?
A double dose of inauthenticity. And very little impact for the money spent, I would guess. So what advice would I give the oil companies on where they should spend their advertising dollars instead?
I’d let Esse Quam Videri (which means, “To be rather than to seem to be” and is the motto of my home state of North Carolina) be the guide.
Rather than spending money seeming to be better corporate citizens, spend that same exact amount of money actually becoming better citizens. Spend the money preventing oil spills. Or making things right for those you’ve already hurt. Or begin a dialog with citizens to learn their concerns and let them share their ideas.
But don’t advertise.
I’m afraid there are no shortcuts to building a positive brand reputation. You actually have to do positive stuff.
Those who chose to invest in perception rather than reality in an Internet-connected world, where everyone has a voice and everyone can impact a brand’s image, should understand that this:
will never be heard over this:
So oil companies, please. Stop using advertising to try to convince us you are something you aren’t. Instead, use the money to make yourselves better, and, over time, with enough good work and progress, you might end up becoming brands we can trust again.
Last weekend we stopped into Quail Ridge Books, a wonderful independent book store just down the street from where we live in Raleigh, NC. After browsing for a while and finding a few things, we went up to the cash register to buy them.
I have to admit, I always experience a little ounce of dread when I walk up to the counter at a bookstore. Most of this comes from my experiences at Barnes & Noble, where each time I approach the counter I’m alerted that I could save from 10-40% on my purchase just by joining their membership program and whatever else is in their rehearsed speech that has probably been tested to ensure each word helps optimize their chances of getting you to sign up so they can “capture” you.
I’m sure Barnes & Noble keeps detailed monthly metrics at their corporate office highlighting how many people sign up at each location due to this point-of-sale promotional technique. I’m also confident that there are incentives (either carrot or stick-based) that 100% guarantee that I’m going to not only have to listen to that speech each time I approach the counter, but also turn them down when they ask me to join. (By the way, I don’t have anything against these sort of programs, I just don’t need to join one for every single store I shop in.)
So I’m standing there at Quail Ridge Books, and I see the cashier reach for a yellow bookmark that I’m positive is going to be the entry point to Quail Ridge’s version of the membership club speech. Instead, the cashier simply says, “We have a membership program called the Reader’s Club. I’m going to put this bookmark in your book and if you like, you can look at the benefits there.”
Whoa. No speech, no sales pressure forcing me to say no. It was like a breath of fresh air.
I’m sure if the folks at the Barnes & Noble corporate office had seen this performance at one of their stores, they would have hit the ceiling. Multiply that approach all across the country at every Barnes & Noble and their point of sale membership spreadsheet would look atrocious. People would get fired.
The problem is, Barnes & Noble is only tracking the data they can see. They have no way of tracking the dark matter–the impact their membership strategy has on the experience of people like me, who now go out of their way to avoid shopping there.
I don’t expect I am the only person out there who is annoyed–not just at Barnes & Noble, mind you–but at every store that forces me to say no to a point-of-sale sales pitch… to give a dollar to this cause, or to join this program, or whatever.
Because the spreadsheets only track the revenue impact that come from these promotions and not the negative brand impact, they probably look stunning on paper. What’s the downside, right?
Well, the downside is people like me not wanting to ever set foot in a Barnes & Noble store.
Stores like Quail Ridge Books that don’t sacrifice the health of their brand community for the sake of hard numbers on a spreadsheet understand the importance of the customer experience in establishing brand reputation, loyalty, and even recommendation.
So next time, before you implement a strategy that is guaranteed to make the numbers look good, make sure you are also studying the dark matter impact to your brand experience and reputation at the same time.
Just because these impacts are harder to measure doesn’t make them any less powerful.