POV: Chevron Teaches Big Brands What Not to Do

SAN FRANCISCO Chevron Oil decided it wanted to win points with the public late last month, so it rolled out the red carpet on a lushly produced TV, print and online campaign and gave the marketing industry a great lesson in what not to do.

The anchor ad was two-and-a-half minutes long, chock full of sweeping aerial shots filmed in more than 13 countries and ran on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

The core message in the $15 million “The power of human energy” campaign is that Chevron is not made of “corporate titans, but men and women of vision.” But ad campaigns like this are exactly how corporate titans talk to the masses. Anyone in Chevron’s organization with half an ounce of vision would have noticed that the world of communications has changed lately; to persuade people, you don’t read platitudes from the mountaintop anymore.

Almost as quickly as the ad hit the airwaves, the bloggers and commentators were shaking their heads over Chevron’s arrogance and crying “Greenwash.” Not exactly the outcome that Chevron wanted after spending $15 million to achieve the opposite. And it wasn’t the fringe element doing the talking. In his Businessweek.com blog, David Kiley wrote, “The effort has a refreshing tone of frankness while at the same time espousing mission-statement-like bromides about conservation and responsible exploration that many an environmentalist could argue with. Not corporate titans?. …this line is ridiculous. Executives who make hundreds of millions of dollars are rich corporate titans. And I think most gas-pumping consumers who have never met one will have a hard time swallowing this one.”

Jamie Court on the Huffingon Post, wrote, “Chevron’s latest advertising campaign is a classic study in how large rogue corporations try to show themselves as having a soul and human meaning.”

Not surprisingly, the environmental activist crowd had a field day. A column in The Daily Koz (with 600,000 visitors a day) took the opportunity—while bashing the Chevron ads—to remind people of the anti-SUV messages secreted in the user-generated ads for the Chevy Tahoe and share some of those videos, which the oil and auto companies no doubt wish would just go away.

Watching the hubbub, I have a few observations.

First, self-awareness is a wonderful thing. Chevron should know it is big oil, with Big Oil-generated profits. It should also appreciate that people are spending a lot of money at the gas pump these days, so they are not in great moods.

BP tried this route back in 2000 before blogs and search engines gave critics the reach and the teeth they have today. BP rebranded itself and launched its global “Beyond petroleum” campaign, trumpeting its support for alternative energy sources. The ongoing ads and sunny green-and-yellow logo aim to set it apart from the other “dirty” oil companies, like Chevron. But over time, those same ads have been used to bludgeon the company in the press and blogosphere for every anti-environmental step BP has taken, including the company’s 2005 lobbying push in Washington, D.C., to allow greenhouse emissions to continue and its 2007 efforts to dump more refinery toxins into Lake Michigan.

Sometimes it’s better to keep your brand profile low and actually take actions that reinforce your message rather than preach about your new identity.

To Chevron: What makes you think you should be the teacher? Perhaps a single parent who can’t afford to get her car tuned so it uses less gas could teach you a thing or two. In a digital age in which the online public has a channel to discuss your every move as much as they want, it is a good idea to think twice about grabbing the lectern. Expect pushback.

Second, if your message is that you are not a pompous corporate entity, then don’t act like one. Before starting such a reputation-burnishing “educational” effort, ask yourself, “If we were an uncaring corporation, what would we do to convince people that we aren’t one?” Then don’t do that. Chevron is telling us it is not Big Oil, but then acts in precisely the way a greenwashing Big Oil outfit would act.

All brands, including oil brands, should remember a key communications fundamental, since they are now in a give-and-take conversation: Honest people don’t tell you they are honest, visionaries don’t need to tell you they have vision and caring organizations don’t keep telling you how much they care.

Expensive ads won’t convince people how fair and reasonable you are; such efforts only underscore that you have plenty of money to spend on expensive ads.

Chevron: Think about the company you’re keeping. Otherwise you’ve lost the argument before you’ve opened your mouth.