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Has Shell’s advertising budget been wisely spent?


Shell’s latest corporate advertisement followed by candid commentary/analysis by Paddy Briggs (right)…


Today’s consumers are smarter than ever about energy. Naturally they want it to heat, cool and light their homes, get them to work, and power their mobile phones. But they are also keen to help build an energy system that sustains the lives of future generations. They want their energy to come from cleaner sources. They want to get the most out of every drop. And they want to see positive results now.

At Shell, we’re listening. Consumers’ raised expectations inspire us to come up with ever more innovative products and services.

Take the quest for cleaner air in our cities. We have created a fuel oil, which can cut soot emissions from factories by up to 75%. That should help people breathe a little easier.

Customers at our service stations want to play their part, too. They want fuels that are more efficient. We’ve responded with new blends that help drivers save fuel with every fill-up. And we’re working with transport companies, combining the latest fuels and lubricants with satellite technology to reduce fuel consumption.

Low-carbon biofuels are another way to meet rising expectations. They can help reduce emissions from road transport right now. We’re already the world’s largest distributor of biofuels and are pursuing plans for large-scale production.

We’re also working with technical partners to develop future biofuels from non-food sources, like crop residue and even algae.

Of course, our customers’ horizons stretch beyond transport to more responsible living, whether through cleaner electricity or more energy-efficient homes and offices.

That’s why we are boosting production of cleaner-burning natural gas, which emits less than half the carbon dioxide of coal when used to generate electricity. And why we are investing in vital technology to capture emissions from power plants and other industrial sites and store it safely underground.

Despite all this change, one thing remains the same. After more than a century, our customers still expect reliable and affordable energy every day. With global energy demand set to double by mid-century, that will be a challenge. But together with our partners we will continue unlocking energy from hard-to-reach places like frozen Siberia and delivering it to customers around the world.

At Shell, we’re grateful to have millions of customers asking for better energy. They demand as much of us as we ask of ourselves.


In its latest corporate advertisement (above), expensively placed in some influential publications like “The Economist”, Shell claims to be “listening”. We have heard this claim before of course and we should treat it with some scepticism – Shell pulled its online feedback forum “Tell Shell” some years ago – presumably because of the virulence of the criticism on it. But no matter – let’s take this latest request for feedback at face value and offer some.

The dark arts of advertising are notoriously ” economical with the actualite” – but I would guess that nobody really minds a bit of hype and “accentuating the positive” – where would copywriting be without the need to put a brand’s products or services in the most favourable light? But there are limits – the need to be “Legal, decent, honest and truthful” is required of any advertiser and the rules say that your ads shouldn’t mislead, lie or even tell half-truths.

So in the context of the need to be at least credible in your ads, and at best transparently truthful, how should we judge Shell’s latest offering? Remember we are talking big bucks here – not principally to the ad agency for preparing the ad and writing the copy but definitely to the media for running it. A few hundred thousand dollars at least – and possibly much more. Has Shell’s budget been wisely spent?

The first paragraph claims that “Today’s consumers are smarter than ever about energy”. It goes on to say that these consumers are “also keen to help build an energy system that sustains the lives of future generations”. How many consumers (that’s you and me folks) speak in anything like these terms? I don’t know what an “energy system” is – and I worked in the industry for nearly forty years. I doubt that my neighbours would have a clue what it is either. Presumably somebody can define the term “energy system” – but there’s little point in using such opaque language in an ad – even in “The Economist”!

So that first paragraph is at best patronising and trite and at worst gobbledegook. But the second paragraph is far worse. The claim is that “Consumers’ raised expectations inspire us to come up with ever more innovative products and services”. The conceit of this statement is breathtaking. It purports to suggest (a) That Shell is innovative and (b) That innovation is consumer led. Now lets be charitable and agree that Shell can indeed be innovative. Virtually all of this innovation comes from the upstream – and impressive some of it is as well. But there is no way that this highly technological activity can be seen as consumer driven. Then in the following paragraph we get mention of a low soot fuel oil for factories. In Britain, which is where this ad appears, a tiny minority of factories burn fuel oil – most of them switched to cheaper and more environmentally friendly natural gas years ago. Not too many people will be breathing any easier as a result of this innovation!

So what about the “service stations” (paragraph 4) – a curious and old-fashioned term by the way. They mean petrol stations I think. Here we are told that customers want “fuels that are more efficient”. Well yes – but not if they have to pay through the nose for them. The “new blends” that are referred to (presumably like V-Power) cost a premium, which negates any efficiency savings. Most motorists want cheap petrol – and there’s not much of a promise about this in the ad. If V-Power and its like really saved money through efficiency don’t you think that Shell would give us the data to prove the case?

The statements about “Low carbon biofuels” (paragraph 5 and 6) are another utterly misleading bit of hype. It is no doubt true that Shell is a big player in these products – but there is nothing much new about them. The Brazilians have run some of their cars on biofuels for a generation or more but in the UK they are virtually non-existent – and will remain so unless governments create a tax regime which make them viable. Some chance!

The seventh paragraph about “customers’ horizons” is just poor copywriting and is virtually meaningless. It’s an unsubstantiated claim – hardly surprising as it is hollow and patronising. It leads on to the next paragraph where the implicit claim is that Shell’s driver for the expansion of its Gas sector is in some way environmental and that it is driven by these “customer horizons”. The real reason for Shell’s drive to boost its production of natural gas is because this sector is growing and is profitable – good business in other words. Yes it is cleaner than coal – but Shell has no influence at all on utilities’ decisions to build Power stations that run on Gas rather than coal. True Shell can supply the gas, at a price, if the utility makes that decision but the determiners of the decision are primarily governments and local authorities – they are the ones one should thank for the resultant cleaner air – not Shell!

The penultimate paragraph is platitudinous and one again trite. If you asked them my guess is that many consumers would be very disturbed about some of the side effects of Shell’s ambition to “…continue unlocking energy from hard-to-reach places”. The Tar Sands of Canada is just one example of where this ambition is, to say the least, controversial!

Shell is not a bad company – although it does some indefensible things at times. But it does itself no service by running advertisements which claim distinctiveness when little exists, claim to have a unique understanding of consumers without any evidence being provided and lapse into self-congratulatory and highly selective hype.


Paddy Briggs 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. In October 2009 Paddy was elected by the 33,000 Shell Pensioners in the UK to be one of the two Pensioner elected Trustees of the Shell Contributory Pension Fund. Paddy runs the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ .and writes and speaks on brand and reputation matters. He is active as a director of training courses on brand and reputation management.

Paddy’s website:


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