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Former Shell Exec Paddy Briggs comments on The Guardian article: Make it green and keep them keen

21 January 2008

The Guardian newspaper published an article today by Caitlin Fitzsimmons which made the point that “Consumers are becoming more environmentally aware and demand the same from their brands, which means a new role for marketers…”

The article mentioned that in November 2007 the UK Advertising Standards Authority censored Royal Dutch Shell for advertising which claimed Shell “used its waste carbon dioxide to grow flowers, when less than 0.5% of Shell’s waste CO2 is used for this purpose.”

The Guardian: Make it green and keep them keen

The following is a comment on the article by a highly respected former Shell Executive, Paddy Briggs.

January 21st, 2008 15:27

This is a timely article, and of course the ASA was right to castigate Shell for its particular lie about CO2 and flowers. But really this was just a trivial little porky pie in the context of the mendacity of much of the oil giant’s corporate adverting in recent times. Shell is not alone in this of course, but there is a special offence given when the facts of the company’s business – facts which are open for all to see – are glossed over and instead we are subject to a barrage of greenwash on a daily basis.

Having worked for Shell for 37 years I know what the business imperatives are – and I wouldn’t have stayed so long if I didn’t think that these imperatives were perfectly honourable. It shouldn’t need saying but here is a précis of what those imperatives are. Around 99% of Shell’s efforts are focused on the search for, and the discovery, harvesting, transporting, processing and marketing of oil and gas – hydrocarbons from that diminishing stock of geological formations under the ground. That’s what Shell does, what drives their profits and what they are, in the main, very good at. It is fantasy to suggest that that there is any other strategy than the continuation of this business – this is the business! Now Shell likes to operate cost-effectively so there is a bias to ensure that waste is reduced as much as possible – but only if it makes economic sense – not because there is a spurious corporate conscience. So flaring (for example) is reduced primarily because it is waste of assets. But where the costs of reducing flaring exceed the benefits then it doesn’t happen – unless legislation says that it must. Technically Shell could have eliminated flaring in Nigeria years ago – but the cost/benefit analysis didn’t give the right numbers. So they dragged their feet.

Let’s look at processing – for example in refineries. The imperative to reduce waste is an economic one – efficient refineries are those which do not waste fuel. So reducing the amount of energy needed to refine a tonne of crude oil is primarily an economic issue. Shell does avoid waste because it believes that it is environmentally irresponsible not to do so. It does so because the bottom line benefits.

Finally the old chestnut of “Renewables”. I and others have argued for a while that Shell is only in non-traditional energy such as solar and wind for the PR benefits that accrue. There is some simplistic communications strategy going on that says that if your advertising focuses (say) 80% on something that is in reality less than 1% of your business the public will be fooled. But as David Ogilvy once said the public is not a fool – she is your wife!

Not all bad news

Whilst much of Shell’s advertising is like the CO2 flower example direly misleading there is hope. The “Eureka campaign” (see:

…I thought was excellent because it told the truth.

Shell should stop posing as some sort of environmentally virtuous benefactor to the world and concentrate (as it did in “Eureka”) in telling the truth about what it does. Then it might be more believed on other things as well.

© Paddy Briggs January 2008

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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