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.
Even though I wrote a book called The Ad-Free Brand, I don’t hate all traditional advertising. In fact, sometimes, I absolutely love it. Today is one of those days.
This morning I opened the New York Times, reading, among other things, stories about the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the business section, on page 7, the top of the page featured a series of images of the protesters, from an 87 year-old man in a walker to a woman carrying a sign that says “Logic of capitalism: you cannot be rich without making others poor.”
Right beneath these photos was a half-page ad from Ally Bank. I’ve been keeping an eye on Ally for the past few years because they seem to be a fantastic example of a Zag approach—a bank that is going one way when every other bank is going the other (in my view, wrong) way. Here is a story that will give you some background on Ally’s approach, but essentially their mission is to re-humanize banking. According to their website, the bank was founded on three simple principles: 1) talk straight 2) do right 3) be obviously better.
That sounds pretty good for a bank.
Here is a close up of the ad that appeared beneath the protester photos:
But rather than building their brands exclusively through traditional advertising, ad-free brands build their brand by following the principle of esse quam videri, “To be rather than to seem to be.”
Rather than talking about what the brand is through the language of advertising, they live the brand and design it into the DNA of the organization so that the brand comes through in every interaction with it.
But sometimes there is a moment in history when a brand story resonates especially well on a broad scale.
For Ally Bank, this is that time.
For the last few years, Ally has been building a brand as a different type of bank from the inside out, by being a more human bank rather than just seeming to be a more human bank. Even though Ally isn’t exactly an ad-free brand (they do regularly spend money on traditional advertising), they are investing much more money and effort getting the brand experience right than they are in spouting endless marketing messages.
Now, with a growing movement increasingly dissatisfied with the financial industry, it is a perfect time for them to dial up the volume with a few well-placed advertisements. And with a pitch-perfect, authentically-articulated message, this particular ad not only differentiates Ally from its banking competition, it serves as an olive branch—one bank willing to break with its brethren and show sympathy to the pain being expressed by a growing movement.
I mean, come on. Are the banks really arrogant enough to believe it is OK for them to screw the very consumers who bailed them out and have seen none of the benefits from that investment trickle back to them? Ally Bank doesn’t think so.
I don’t either.
If so, you can find more thoughts about how to build your brand effectively in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).
A long time ago, a smart North Carolina native mentioned to me that the official NC state motto was the Latin phrase “esse quam videri,” which translates as “to be rather than to seem to be.” Yeah, I didn’t know states had mottoes either. Turns out a lot of them do.
I was struck by this phrase. As Red Hat has grown from North Carolina roots into an international company with offices around the world, we’ve adopted this one little piece of North Carolina-ness as an unofficial litmus test for the Red Hat brand voice as well.
Esse quam videri first appeared in the Cicero essay On Friendship, but a similar concept can actually be traced back to the Greek playwright Aeschylus. His line, which later appeared in Plato’s The Republic, was “His resolve is not to seem the best but in fact to be the best.” You can find more on the history of the phrase here.
Esse quam videri inspires authenticity. When Red Hat is communicating at our best, we use esse quam videri as the muse of simple, honest talk; conversation that doesn’t hide behind the foreign languages of marketing, law, or business.
Sometimes it inspires us to not communicate at all, to simply do instead. When we are not communicating well, we are not listening to our muse.