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.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Jim Gilmore, co-author (with Joseph Pine) of the book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. I first read the book a few years ago, and it really struck a nerve for me—these guys were on to something.
CHRIS: After joining the open source world ten years ago, it didn’t take me long to figure out that most open source folks despise marketing as it is traditionally practiced. Is there something inherently inauthentic about the language of marketing? Perhaps open source folks have a low tolerance for inauthenticity?
JIM: I often quote from a letter-to-the-editor that appeared in the Harvard Business Review following the publication of our article, “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” In this letter, Robert Jones of Wolf-Olins shared his definition of a brand as “the promise of an experience.”
Joe Pine and I responded by saying Amen to that, but added that so often the actual experience fails to fulfill against the promise. Indeed, marketing in general, and advertising in particular, has become a giant phoniness-generating machine. And not just the language of marketing, but the very practice of marketing so often serves to erode the perception of authenticity among consumers—by making promises that bear little resemblance to the actual experience encountered.
So much creative talent today is engaged in making promises as marketing instead of being employed to create compelling experiences as actual output. The experience itself should be the marketing.
My friend Robert Stephens, founder of the Geek Squad, is fond of saying, “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” I feel that way about most marketing. I’d like to see creative talent diverted from making messages about goods and services and used instead to help create truly remarkable experiences, ones so compelling that they command a fee as product.
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]