During the Q&A session that followed Royal Dutch/Shell's announcement recently in London of record half-yearly results, Mark Moody-Stuart, chairman of the Anglo-Dutch group's Committee of Managing Directors (CMD), was asked to comment on the risks inherent in recasting a corporate brand. He would not be drawn.
Fellow Shell CMD committee member Paul Skinner feigned to field the question before retreating behind the declaration that "changing one's brand does not enter into the immediate equation" when that brand has the "power" of a giant gold-and-red shell.
Such a statement sounds like pro forma business-speak, although Shell has its own numbers to bear out its belief in the public's "preference" of the group's brand.
Last year, Shell carried out surveys in 52 countries to quantify its "preference share ranking" alongside the brands of Esso, BP, Mobil, and Texaco-Caltex. The big picture-and the devil is likely in the bar graph-is that Shell, by its calculation, enjoys the highest brand profile in 32 nations polled and is recognized worldwide with an immediacy that would leave competitors green.
Arch-rival BP proposes to spend £100 million over the next year imprinting its new company logo, the green-and-yellow floral "Helios," on the collective consumer unconscious as a symbol of an environmentally responsible, diversified energy company. Had company brand researchers double-checked the mythological reference, more thought might have been given to this minutia:one epithet given Helios, the sun god, was "lord of high noon." A prime vantage point, but one soon sinking toward sunset.
Still, with BP last week reporting second quarter profits rocketing skyward toward $3.7 billion, the company is happy to make hay while the sun shines, given the likelihood that oil prices promise, as BP Chief Executive Sir John Browne stressed, to be more "varied" than not.
Judging by Shell's earnings for the last quarter-which, at $3.15 billion, came close to doubling last year's figures-devoting 18 months to the nuts-and-bolts implementation of its "road map" to "integrate sustainable development thinking in the way [it] does business" rather than, say, its brand, has been time well spent.
The 'Pecten' seems able to take care of itself.
For evidence, look no further than Shell's high-profile climbdown from plans in 1995 to dump the Brent spar in the North Atlantic deeps, a debacle that, by rights, should have proved disastrous to group brand management. At the height of Greenpeace's campaign, Shell had environmental extremists firebombing its service stations in Germany and a 14,500-tonnne floating structure iconic of all that was dirty and reckless about Big Oil it couldn't get shot of-a nightmare scenario for corporate marketers.
Five years on, Shell's soundings of public recognition of its brand come back with one message: No oil company is better known on sight than Shell.
Some ad agencies would make a case for there being no such thing as bad publicity when building a brand. History may show it runs deeper: Brent spar could ultimately be to Shell what "swoosh" banners hanging in East Berlin after the fall of the Iron Curtain were to Nike's Phil Knight: "A truly defining moment when it really hit: We're not just a company anymore."