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Article by former Shell Executive Paddy Briggs: Shell says ‘No to Yes’

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7 December 2007
By Paddy Briggs

Just when you thought it was safe to buy a newspaper or a serious magazine again up pops Shell with more of its absurd corporate advertising. The “Say No to No” campaign, running again this week, almost defies belief in its self-congratulatory and disingenuous copy and tone. Let’s first take a look at one of the ads – the one with the teacher writing on the blackboard – here, word for word, is what it says:

“Say No to No

Isn’t it high time someone got negative about negativity?Yes it is.Look around. The world is full of things that, according to nay-sayers, should have never happened.”Impossible.””Impractical.””No.”And yet “yes.”Yes, continents have been found.Yes, men have played golf on the moon.Yes, straw is being turned into biofuel to power cars.Yes, yes, yes.What does it take to turn no into yes?Curiosity. An open mind. A willingness to take risks.And, when the problem seems most insoluble, when thechallenge is hardest, when everyone else is shakingtheir heads, to say: let’s go.”

The tag line is “Real energy solutions for the real world” and the implication is that Shell has these solutions because of the position it takes (as described in the copy). So Shell is not negative then? Shell is up there with those who found continents and played golf on the moon. With Columbus and Neil Armstrong. With NASA. With the fifteenth century Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Shell is a risk taker just like they were? What arrant nonsense.

Shell is one of the most risk averse, short-sighted and cautious enterprises of modern times. And especially in its energy category. When other companies made acquisitions (Exxon for Mobil, BP of Amoco, Chevron of Texaco, Total of Elf…) Shell stayed nervously out of the fray. When opportunities arose Shell said “Yes to No”. They shook their heads and said not “Lets’ go” but “let’s not”.

Shell always says “No” to diversification – to the risks of getting out of their comfort zone. Here’s an (incomplete) list to prove this point:

Minerals: Billiton ………………SOLD
Nuclear: General Atomic………SOLD
Coal: Shell Coal…………………SOLD
Power Generation: Intergen……SOLD

As far as alternative energy (Renewables) is concerned can their be the slightest doubt that it would go the way of the other diversifications – if it wasn’t for the phoney “green” kudos it brings to Shell’s reputation?

The comfort zone of Shell gets narrower as the years roll by not wider. All of the daily emphasis is on the traditional businesses and in particular on the upstream – the search for oil and gas. Old world, old energy, old core competences. I don’t mind this at all either as a small shareholder or as a pensioner – but I do object when I am being bamboozled into believing something that patently isn’t true.

And isn’t it pretty negative to sell or franchise your brand – your most valuable intangible asset? And Shell is selling its brand – for example in Ireland where the Shell branded petrol stations now have little or nothing to do with the company at all. The Shell logo stands over petrol stations that Shell has sold and which it no longer controls. Here is what Shell in Ireland says about this:

“In July 2005, Shell announced that it had signed sale and purchase agreements with Topaz Distribution and Logistics for the divestment of the majority of Shell’s oil products businesses in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The agreements relate to Shell’s retail, commercial fuels, lubricants, marine, and supply and distribution businesses.

Topaz will continue to use the Shell brand and Shell UK will continue to supply high quality fuels and lubricants to the company, which means that the Shell brand will remain visible in Ireland and service to customers, dealers, and distributors will be maintained.”

So the “Shell brand will be visible” – as if this, in itself, is something that consumers could be concerned about. A brand is more than a logo – it stands for a total commitment to the customer. Shell has walked away from its customers in Ireland and divested itself of this commitment. Shell is also walking away from a host of other markets, because it perceives that it cannot operate these businesses profitably. Who is being negative now? Who is saying “Yes to No” again not “No to No”?

One of the cases for the powerful multinationals is that their very financial strength should allow them to be long term in their outlook. They ought to be able to ride the waves of the squally world of business. Shell was built up on this very philosophy – risks were really taken in the past – new ventures, new countries, new markets, new technologies. Not all worked, but the sheer size of the organisation meant that it could ride the storms and tolerate the failures that will inevitably happen when you really do take risks. The Shell of today is utterly different from this – far more short term in its thinking and far more risk averse. And yet they have the supreme arrogance to think that they can credibly preach the virtues of “a willingness to take risks” and to suggest that they are on the moral high ground – an organisation that rejects negative thinking. It isn’t true – and I, for one, am sick and tired of being lied to by those who want me to believe that it is.

© Paddy Briggs December 2007

Paddy Briggs

Paddy worked for Shell for 37 years during the last fifteen of which he was responsible for Brand management in a number of appointments. He was the winner of the “Shell/Economist” writing prize (internal) in 2001. Paddy retired from Shell in 2002 to form the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ and to write and speak on brand and reputation matters. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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