Shell Oil Breaks Industry Silence With Aggressive Ad Campaign

Touts 'New Energy Future' As Rivals Hunker Down During BP Oil Spill Disaster

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As BP repeatedly botches its communications efforts around the environmental disaster that is the worst oil spill in U.S. history, nearly every other oil company has gone silent save one: Shell Oil.

Shell seems to be going after a space once owned by BP by presenting itself as something more than an oil company -- beyond petroleum, if you will. An aggressive new ad campaign, which includes print, TV, online, outdoor executions and two websites, energygalaxy.com and shell.us/letsgo, kicked off May 28. The effort touts the dawn of a future that will be powered by new and multiple energy sources and cleaner fossil fuels that Shell is "unlocking." It also expresses the notion the world will soon be on the road to sustainable mobility and that Shell is "ready to help tackle the challenges of the new energy future." The London office of WPP's JWT assisted Shell on the effort.

Patricia Singer, brand manager for Shell Oil Co., said the international campaign was in the pipeline for nearly a year and was designed to strengthen the brand. "The campaign is really an expression of Shell's activity in addressing the energy challenge," Ms. Singer said. She said that despite the crisis in the Gulf and the harsh criticism that the industry was taking because of BP, the company felt launching the campaign was the right thing to do.

"We realized that in spite of the situation in the Gulf being ongoing, we wanted to launch our campaign as planned because we believe that now is an important time to engage with our customers and stakeholders. It's important to communicate how we operate, what we need to achieve together and that we all have a role to play in meeting the growing demand and challenge of this new energy future. We saw this as an opportunity to reach out to our stakeholders and customers and continue a dialogue or in some cases start a dialogue."

Ms. Singer would not disclose the cost of the campaign but said it would keep the company's ad spending in line with 2009. According to Kantar Media, Shell Oil's measured media spend was $14.6 million last year.

Ms. Singer said it was too early to tell if the campaign would ever make mention of the BP crisis. "Over time this will evolve," she said. "But in the meantime we have a diverse set of materials and creative already planned and activated. We will continue to evolve the campaign to continue telling our story as we go forward."

While Ms. Singer said the intention of the campaign was not to separate Shell from BP or the oil spill, some marketing industry executives think the campaign is doing just that. "Everyone in the oil industry has fallen into a deep pit because of this debacle and it's a mark against the whole category," said Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer at Method, a brand-experience agency. "This is a breakaway campaign for Shell looking to distance itself from BP and what seems to be irresponsibility. It's a stake in the ground of where Shell wants to go to distance itself from the category. All of the oil companies made statements that BP was at fault. But nonetheless they have to show that therefore they are not."

It is unusual for an industry player to call attention to itself in the light of a disaster like this, said a communications executive who has worked with oil companies in the past, mainly because a spill or rig explosion could happen to any of them. "It's not a competitive business in the sense that 'We have better refineries than they do,'" the executive said. But then he added that based on the hearings last week where BP CEO Tony Hayward was used as a punching bag by Congress and failed to provide and any significant answers or emotion, "Shell doesn't want to be painted with the same brush that BP has been because the stakes are way too high to let that happen."

Eric Dezenhall, CEO and co-founder of Dezenhall Resources, said the best approach for an oil company in good times and bad is to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. "Nobody likes oil companies and nobody ever will," Mr. Dezenhall said via e-mail. He added that pushing the green message is all fine and good but Shell should be careful not to cross that line that can turn consumers off. "It's fine to raise the issue of alternative energy, but too much posing for green pictures has been known to tick people off," he said.

Mr. Crutchfield said the entire oil category is currently considered dirty and negligent and that it's a battle for both share and reputation. As a result, he expects it won't be too long before some of the other major oil competitors start their own major campaigns.

"These oil companies have to put out an offensive posture and make a statement or point of difference that they can then create as a trajectory for the business going forward," Mr. Crutchfield said. "All of the major players are going to have to put a stake in the ground in terms of where they sit and stand in the market and what their view is. They did it in front of Congress, now they have to do it in front of the consumer."

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