decision to launch a splashy ad campaign with the tagline "We Agree" was hardly the first time that a global energy company has spent millions of dollars trying to enhance positive perceptions of their brand by pivoting away from public opposition. But it may be one of the last times that we see energy companies trying to saddle up to members of the public as if they were a potential date at a Georgetown bar.
Chevron's new campaign
was punked by the activist-perfomers The Yes Men
, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network
and Amazon Watch
to create a fake version of the "We Agree" campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media
as authentic. The Yes Men sent out a fake press release hours before the launch of the Chevron campaign and created a fake website at www.chevron-weagree.com
that fooled reporters into thinking their campaign was real. Chevron is currently fighting an $18 billion lawsuit in Ecuador over the actions of their subsidiary Texaco, dating back twenty years. Chevron claims that they have repaired the damage caused by the oilfields, and they contend that the Ecuadorian courts have been biased against them. According to the Rainforest Action Network
, the company is launching this campaign in order to avoid paying one of the largest settlements in history.
Chevron has launched a campaign that has struck a hollow chord with the public before. Their "People Do" campaign asked rhetorical questions about their good works including restoring marshes once used for oil exploration. Many of those "good deeds" were required by law.
The Yes Men are tapping into a rich tradition of political theater that lies somewhere in between Guy Debord of the French situationist movement and Ashton Kutcher. As the power of social media continues to grow, we'll see more and more of this type of takedown. There are no shortage of ad campaigns that deserve to be mocked.
I saw this campaign from Shell in the San Francisco airport during the heart of the Gulf Oil disaster.
If they really had the technology, it would have been nice if they had gone and shut down the exploding well in the Gulf. But I suppose that wasn't the technology they were talking about.
Or how about this campaign from Kentucky Fried Chicken for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation?
KFC committed to donating fifty cents for every bucket of chicken they sold to the Foundation. At about the same time they launched and promoted their 'Double-Down' sandwich which consists of two deep-fried filets of chicken surrounding two pieces of bacon, two pieces of monterey jack cheese, and the Colonel's sauce. It's hard to sell a sandwich with 32 grams of fat and be a respected voice in the fight against breast cancer.
As time goes on, these sorts of campaigns will begin to diminish. Chevron's recent campaigns will be remembered as oddities that were born out of a time when weak research suggested that the public could be tricked in a lasting way by a catchy ad, relentlessly applied. The era of greenwashing is over for the simple reason that it doesn't work. For the price of a URL and a little wit, a campaign that is out of step with reality can be hacked and become more of a liability than a potential benefit.
There will still be companies with reputational liabilities that will push their eager creatives to design campaigns to shine up their names. For them, I offer the following advice.
1) Resolve your crisis.
Before GE could launch their Ecomagination effort, which brought together their various ecologically-oriented businesses into one united initiative, they had to deal with their ongoing Hudson River pollution liability. Between 1947 and 1977 GE dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. Environmental advocates and the EPA demanded that they dredge the river. GE passionately believed they had fulfilled their moral and legal responsibility to clean the abandoned site and litigated to protect themselves. Eventually they concluded that paying the price to clean the Hudson was less expensive than the continuing attacks on their reputation. There is no role for a mass communications effort while the public doesn't trust your desire to resolve your responsibilities.
CEOs need to be reminded to be humble in their declarations of social leadership. The idea of a multi-billion dollar company being "green" is almost ridiculous, since the phrase has no agreed-upon meaning and there is always something more you can do. That's one reason that "sustainability" has gained favor as a goalset for corporate leaders. To be sustainable means that you bring social, environmental, economic and cultural considerations into your decisions, and that you're setting up your enterprise to be profitable for years to come. When it comes to communications, the best way to be humble is to listen to your employees, customers and the community. Chevron tried to do this by creating a fake dialogue; if you fake it you'll rapidly find that you'll be in dialogue with someone like the Yes Men.
3) Let your employees lead.
Employees need to be a primary audience for your communications. They're the ones who have to live with your reputation day in and day out. One employee at a large Midwestern conglomerate once told me that his company's poor reputation became uncomfortable for him whenever he went to an out-of-state funeral. "There's nothing worse," he told me, "than having someone feel so compelled to attack your company that he'd interrupt your mourning to do so." A poor reputation will affect your stock price, but it's much more strongly felt by your employees when they go home to their kids every night. These employees have an extraordinary motivation to help you solve whatever problem you face; inviting them into the solution and goal-setting process will empower them to share your message. Their private conversation at funerals and on Twitter
will be much more effective at swaying the public than any ad campaign.
4) Set North Star Goals. A North Star Goal
is an aspirational goal that combines your business objectives with a higher purpose. These goals, which are being set by an increasing number of Fortune 500 companies, have the following attributes:
- Actionable by everyone in the company
- Tied into the core of the business
- Inspirational to your employees and customers
- Achievable in 5 - 15 years
- In service of a cause larger than making money
Companies that are setting North Star Goals are finding that by being in step with society's demands bold forces come to their aid.
- Starbucks' North Star Goal is ethically sourcing every cup of coffee and making every cup either recyclable or reusable.
- Toyota's North Star Goal is to make cars that never crash and clean the air as they drive.
- P&G's North Goal is to sell $50 billion in sustainable-innovation products and send zero consumer or manufacturing waste to landfills.
No doubt we'll still see a few last campaigns like Chevron's "We Agree" campaign. But you can be comforted by the thought that those campaigns will do more to harm the companies they represent than help them.