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The origins of Shell’s “Greenwash” were back in 1997

In this article former Shell executive Paddy Briggs explains the background to the oil company’s predilection for “Greenwash

Greenwash is in the news again as the oil companies are pilloried for the disingenuous corporate advertising they propagate in a naïve effort to boost their reputations. Shell has been twice criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority and BP and others have also outraged the environmental lobby by the sheer effrontery of many of their claims. But where did it all begin? Take a look first at this video on YouTube, and then I will explain!

The purpose of advertising is to persuade – usually to convince a consumer to favour your branded goods or services over those of your competitors. And a perfectly honourable profession it is as well – or I wouldn’t have spent quite a bit of my Shell career commissioning advertising campaigns! In essence the task was to find a way of differentiating Shell products in such a way that the motorist (in particular) went to our petrol stations rather than those of Esso or Caltex or Mobil. We always tried to find a genuine edge – perhaps in respect of the product quality, or the levels of service or the range of goods or the location and extent of our network. We were required, as every advertiser is required, to ensure that what we said in our ads was legal, decent, honest and truthful. Of course there was an element of selectivity in our message. If, for example, Shell did not have the largest network in a particular country or area then we might try and ensure that we gave the best service. This is the famous Avis pitch – we might not be number one but we are trying harder because we are number two! But if you do this you better deliver – the public is not a fool and if you try and bullshit them they will soon learn to ignore or discount your future messages! So the task was to persuade by telling the truth about what we offered – not the whole truth, perhaps, but the truth nevertheless. Verifiable, defendable messages that worked.

Corporate advertising is another game. Here you are not trying to sell a product or a service but you are still trying to persuade – usually the persuasion task is to raise your profile or enhance your reputation. It’s a different game – but the same rules and principles apply. The perception of your advertising must be a perception that you are telling the truth and also, and vitally, that the message is credible and relevant to the receiver. Whereas in product advertising you are seeking a purchase following exposure to the advertising in corporate advertising you are generally seeking not a direct response but an altered attitude. “Before I was exposed to the advertising I thought that Shell was only an OIL company but now I know that they are a big GAS company as well” (for example). Consequently there is often a greater degree of information dissemination in Corporate Advertising.

The oil companies have received a lot of bad press from environmental groups and others because the plethora of corporate advertising they have been indulging in for some time seems inaccurate, nuanced and highly selective in its content and themes. The term “Greenwash” was invented to describe this advertising. Having worked for over five years on corporate communications for Shell in my last assignment in the Middle East (and off and on in other locations before this) I think that nearly all of the criticism and the charge of greenwash is justified. All too often Shell’s advertising tells highly selective stories and half truths and makes bizarre and indefensible claims about aspects of Shell’s business. There are many examples but the concentration on Shell’s Renewables business (Solar, Forestry, Wind etc) was a particular case in point. Clearly the intention of this advertising was to try and persuade that Shell is not only active in renewable energy but is a serious player. Do you remember the “Forestry” ad where a Boris Becker lookalike “Shell project engineer” “has a thing about trees” and believes that in the future “half of our energy can come from renewable sources like…sustainable forests”. The tagline of the ad was that “Damian Miller works for Shell Renewables. What was once just a small research project is now a major business. One day it could be our biggest business.” That was in 2004 – but the business featured in the ad (Forestry) was disposed of by Shell in 2005 – so it didn’t become Shell’s biggest business – or even remain a Shell business at all!

When corporate advertising is as disingenuous as the Forestry ad it brings the whole genre into disrepute. But notwithstanding this debacle Shell has continued to make claims in its corporate advertising which are at best narrowly and deceptively selective and at worst just plain lies. That is why Shell has been wrapped over the knuckles twice in recent times by the Advertising Standards Authority for it misleading claims. But what was the original stimulus for this style of advertising and why has Shell persisted with it despite the tumult of “Greenwash” criticism? To find the answer to this question we need to go back to 1997 when Shell management was battered and battle-weary from the criticism that had been thrown at them after a series of events which had seriously dented their and Shell’s reputation. There had been, in particular, the debacle over the disposal of the offshore oil production platform “Brent Spar” and the almost simultaneous crisis resultant from Shell’s activities in Nigeria. In this benighted country a corrupt and despotic government had brutally judicially murdered the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Shell was accused of indirect complicity in this repulsive act of vengeance.

As a result of Brent Spar and Nigeria Shell’s probity, and the integrity and judgment of its senior staff, were brought into question. By coincidence the new leader of the corporation at the time was a man, Cor Herkströter, who was something of an outsider (he was not an oilman at all but an accountant inherited with the takeover of Billiton). Whereas the hard-headed oilmen who had traditionally run Shell might have weathered the storm Herkströter was cut to the quick by the criticism – much of which was personal. He launched an exercise which was designed to restore Shell’s reputation – an exercise which had the ambitious task of making Shell the “World’s Most Admired Company” (this even carried the acronym “WOMAC”). Extensive research was carried out amongst “key decision makers” and one of the conclusions was that Shell needed to present its image to the outside world in a more positive light.

One day Herkströter was introduced to one of the doyennes of British advertising and the man credited with the successful marketing of Margaret Thatcher – (Lord) Maurice Saatchi. Saatchi was always one for the main chance and bypassing all the usual brand and reputation management processes and people in Shell he persuaded Herkströter that Shell need to reposition itself as a company that was indisputably a force for good in the world. The Saatchi message was that progress in the twentieth century had been attributable to the global spread of the capitalist and free enterprise system – and because Shell had been a major player in this system then Shell must have been partly, even substantially, responsible for this progress.

So when Herkströter came to a meeting of senior executives of Shell in the summer of 1997 it was the Saatchi inspired message that he was selling to them. The brief video clip posted on YouTube culminates in a three-minute film, made by Saatchi, which presented the message about progress and Shell in an emotional way. It also introduced the idea that Shell’s core purpose (no less) was to “…help build a better world”. And that its corporate identity was that “The future is a better place”. There were many in Shell, particularly those of us who had had a long career in the Group and who specialised in brand and communications, who thought that Herkströter had lost his marbles. That most of his colleagues lined up to support him in this bizarre endeavour worried us as well. In the event some of the brand and reputation management advisers in Shell were able to tone down the worst excesses of the planned campaign but much of it went ahead anyway and the effects of it still linger.

What we witnessed back in 1997 was a commercial company trying to justify its existence not by pointing to the genuine fact that it was a world leader in the perfectly respectable activities of oil and gas production (etc.) for which it was famous. Instead we were exposed to a pitch that Shell was somehow a sort of a quasi benevolent organisation whose core purpose was not to make a return for shareholders over time (the real core purpose, of course) but to “help build a better world.”

The communications proposed by Saatchi, and bought lock, stock and barrel by Herkströter were toned down somewhat and as a result at the time excessive ridicule was avoided. But the vestiges of this ill-thought-through campaign remain and can still be seen in the continued attempts to present the beneficial by-products of some of Shell’s activities as the reasons for them rather than as what they really are – indirect consequences. The speech-writers, the advertisers and the other corporate advisers need to reflect in the light of this history (which if they don’t know it, they should study) that if you try to present yourself as something that you are not then you will be found out. Shell has been rumbled – and they need seriously to reflect on how they present themselves to the world in the future. The time of lies and obfuscation is over.

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