The Oil Sands PR War

The down-and-dirty fight to brand Canada's oil patch

The down and dirty fight to brand Canada’s oil patch

Not long ago, a half-page ad appeared on page three of The Globe & Mail. Over an image of a bucolic forest glade lit by a golden sunrise, a headline read, “Energy the world needs. The approach Canadians expect.” The ad was short on specifics—a block of smaller type spoke of Canada’s perception in the wider world and “a constant effort to improve our environmental performance.” The only appearance of the word oil was in the URL for the campaign’s website:

The ad had been placed by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and it was the latest effort in an ongoing, two-year campaign to improve the public image of Canada’s oil industry—particularly the lucrative but much-maligned bitumen extraction business in the oil sands of northern Alberta. The bucolic forest glade, the ad’s fine print noted, was a “reclaimed mining operation” in Alberta’s vast boreal forest, executed by Syncrude.

If Globe readers didn’t come away from their morning scan thinking of CAPP’s golden meadow, that might be because it wasn’t the only story about Canadian oil in the front section of the paper that day. “Spate of spills pushes Alberta to harder look at pipeline safety,” read a front-page headline. The article covered a dramatic recent spill into the waters of Alberta’s cottage country from a Plains Midstream oil pipeline, and it continued across half of an inside page, featuring an infographic nearly the same size as CAPP’s ad that detailed the eight oil spills across the province since April 2011.

On this day, at least, the news had undone all of CAPP’s hard work. There was no reclaimed-forest scene that would’ve been sufficiently serene to outshine the glaring oil spill headlines. And it mattered not at all that few pipeline companies are even members of CAPP. Canadians don’t differentiate between “upstream” and “downstream” oil business operations for the same reason they never ask whether Syncrude or Suncor or Saudi Aramco supplied the regular unleaded they’re pumping into their tanks: it’s all oil. Indeed, CAPP’s own campaign doesn’t even like to be that specific; it just talks about energy. The project’s whole intent has been to associate Canadian oil companies with feel-good images, to turn public attention away from black crude gurgling out of ruptured pipes. CAPP had only placed the ad—and mounted the whole campaign—because too many Canadians already associated Alberta’s oil patch with burst pipelines and soaring greenhouse gas emissions and the corpses of dead ducks floating in toxic tailings ponds.

“It was a huge decision for the industry to feel like it needed to engage in advertising,” says CAPP vice-president Janet Annesley. “There was that tsunami of criticism, and a decision was taken that the only way that we can reach the number of Canadians to begin this conversation is through a broad-based advertising program.”

Two years on, it can be hard to see much in the way of improvement. The conversation about the costs and benefits of Alberta’s oil industry has never been more divisive, never more visible nor more heated. Never have the oil sands been more thunderously championed nor more widely denounced. After two years, in the midst of all this noise, can the oil patch’s conventional rebranding effort claim any impact at all? The answer is a highly qualified yes. The conversation may be a contentious one, but at least the industry now has a voice in it. It may not have found just the right tone yet—and maybe not even the best medium—but its stories do in fact appear to matter to the almost 50% of Canadians, according to a recent CAPP poll, who place themselves in the neutral middle of the debate, wondering who’s telling the truth.

To understand how the conversation’s changed, let’s go back to the PR nightmare that finally spurred the oil patch to jump in. Oil industry executives like to talk about “the social licence to operate”—the general public’s willingness to permit them to plough under virgin boreal wetlands and spew great clouds of carbon dioxide for an ostensibly greater good, in this case our insatiable thirst for oil. And in recent years, Alberta’s oil patch has begun to fret a great deal about its social licence. Essential and profitable as it might be, the oil business has become the black smear on Canada’s once-proud environmental record, the poster child for Canada’s laggard efforts to combat climate change. Green groups at home and abroad have begun to cite Alberta’s oil business as Public Environmental Enemy No. 1. In 2008, one environmental group called the oil sands “the most destructive project on earth,” but in 2010 things really went into overdrive. In July, a group called Corporate Ethics International launched a campaign calling Alberta “the other oil disaster”—a direct comparison to the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe. Soon after, Hollywood mogul James Cameron arrived in Alberta for a high-profile personal tour of the oil sands. Earlier in the year, Cameron—whose blockbuster Avatar was viewed by most as a blunt metaphor about the damage being done to the planet—called the oil sands a black eye for Canada.

Cameron’s tour, however, was instructive. By no means did he absolve the oil companies, but he left Alberta speaking in unexpectedly measured tones about the nature of bitumen mining. Asked by the assembled press whether the oilsands project could be part of a new era of global environmental stewarship, Cameron answered, “That depends on the pace of that extraction and burning versus the pace of the conversion to a renewable energy economy.” In another interview, he said, “It will be a curse if it’s not managed properly. It can also be a great gift to Canada and to Alberta.”

CAPP’s campaign, along with a similarly themed branding campaign by Cenovus (EnCana’s oil sands spinoff company), launched right around the time of Cameron’s headline-making visit. In the two years since, CAPP and Cenovus have worked relentlessly to build on Cameron’s idea that the industry has a place in a greener world, and that in any case it is not the most destructive project on earth. They’ve done so against a hyper-charged backdrop of vociferous and increasingly aggressive government support for their industry and relentless anti-oil sands campaigning by environmental groups around the world.

In the United States, climate change activists seized on the vagaries of a new infrastructure project intended to deliver Alberta’s oil to Texas refineries, turning the Keystone XL pipeline’s approval process into the front line of a global campaign against fossil fuels. In Europe, Alberta’s oil was prevented from being classified as a “high emissions” fuel distinct from conventional petroleum only by intense lobbying on several fronts. In Ottawa, meanwhile, the rallying cry of “ethical oil” started by Sun News Network ranter-in-chief Ezra Levant has become the government’s party line and a lightning rod for ferocious criticism of the government’s indifference to climate change and many other environmental concerns.

There had been talk in Alberta’s oil patch for some time about a mounting need to establish an industry voice—“to better manage the message,” as it was put at a 2010 Energy Roundtable in Calgary—but no individual company wanted to make itself the face of the whole industry, so the job fell to CAPP. The logic of which was soon apparent; as CAPP’s Janet Annesley notes, many people had heard about ducks floating dead on tailings ponds, but very few could name the company whose ponds had done the killing (Syncrude’s, for the record). “Any negative incident with the industry is going to have a negative impact, perhaps directly back to a brand,” Annesley explains. “But it does more generically fall on the shoulders of the broader industry. Bad pun, but it tars all involved in the industry with the same brush.”

The mass-market face of CAPP’s “Oil Sands Today” campaign, which has also included government communications, more frequent media tours of oil sands operations and eventually some social media engagement, has been literally just that—a series of friendly everyday faces. In print and TV ads, real, live oil patch workers from a range of companies explain their jobs, most of which involve reducing the industry’s environmental footprint or cleaning up the mess its extraction work leaves behind.

In a typical clip, a Syncrude environmental manager named Steve Gaudet leads viewers on a tour of the same reclaimed mining operation that later served as background for the campaign’s most recent print ad. At one point he breaks the narrative to point out two squirrels chasing each other through the replanted forest. “It’s very important to us that people hear about the good work that we’re doing,” Gaudet explains.

The campaign’s primary goal, Annesley notes, was to “reverse the momentum” of public opinion against the oil sands, to calm the tsunami of disapproval. Within the parameters of that modest goal, there’s been some success: a recent Angus Reid poll commissioned by CAPP showed that negative opinion of the industry was down an average of 6% in Canada’s four largest cities outside Alberta since the start of the campaign. The poll’s own summary, though, notes that “forward momentum is becoming more challenging.” News of pipeline spills hasn’t gone away, and neither have the industry’s critics.

“You don’t wait until the flood has started before you start building your ark,” says Noel O’Dea, president of St. John’s-based Target Marketing and Communications, which has done brand rehabilitation work with Irving Oil. Alberta’s oil patch would have been best served, he argues, by more careful “brand guardianship” long before it had become a byword for environmental catastrophe. “A narrow campaign that i in reaction to that kind of flood is just a dory, not an ark, and it is going to get slapped around.”

The industry itself offers several cautionary tales about the challenges of reviving the big oil brand when so many already hold a negative opinion. Though the worry over permission to carry on making billions is particularly acute among Canada’s oil companies, it’s as global as fossil fuel extraction and has been growing as an issue for years. It drove the company formerly known as British Petroleum to spend much of the past decade shrinking its name to an ambiguous acryonym and insisting the letters stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” (Whatever headway BP had made was erased within days of its catastrophic Gulf of Mexico spill in the summer of 2010.) More recently, Chevron and Shell have both mounted ambitious multi-million-dollar campaigns intended to persuade customers and critics alike that they are both deeply committed to correcting past errors and building a sustainable energy economy for the 21st century. And both were at least partially subverted by equally strident and much more nimble counter-attacks by environmental groups, demonstrating just how perilous the terrain has grown for energy businesses in the marketing game.

Consider the case of Shell’s “Let’s Go” campaign, which was launched with considerable fanfare in early June with the tagline “Let’s Broaden the World’s Energy Mix.” A slick TV commercial depicted scenes of efficient transportation and well-lit celebration around the world, implying it was all made possible by Shell’s environmentally friendly natural gas and ethanol (oil, of course, was not mentioned by name). Before anyone beyond Shell’s boardroom had heard about the campaign, though, a video purporting to show the launch of the company’s new Arctic exploration work appeared on YouTube. The video, which appeared to be shot surreptitiously from a smartphone, revealed a posh corporate space—an “exclusive Shell party,” it was claimed—in which a business-suited crowd was celebrating with drinks poured from a fountain shaped like an oil drilling rig. As the first guest approached the fountain, it malfunctioned and spewed a dark liquid all over the guest and several hapless Shell execs. The video was a massive viral hit and several media outlets ran stories on the fiasco before Greenpeace and legendary corporate pranksters the Yes Men confirmed they’d made it as a spoof.

An accompanying website offered a simple do-it-yourself tool that used Shell’s “Let’s Go” design elements to make fake Shell ads; one of the most widely distributed showed a polar bear swimming in melted Arctic seawater under the tagline “In order to survive, we all have to push our limits. Let’s Go.” As of early July, about 3,200 people had watched Shell’s official “Let’s Go” video on YouTube; more than half a million watched the spoof in the first day it was online. By trying to tell a different kind of story about its brand, Shell had set itself up for withering criticism of its dark environmental legacy.

This was the roiling sea into which the oil patch’s modest dory launched. Friend or foe, the audience for one of CAPP’s cheerful vignettes of incremental environmental progress was not predisposed to take the scene at face value. And to navigate such turbulent waters, your claims to authenticity need to be impeccable, says Rob Abbott, a management consultant who has spent 25 years navigating the turbulent waters of Canada’s energy sector. “This is creating an expectation,” Abbott says. “It’s creating an implicit promise that if I look, I’m going to see good things happening.”

On the one hand, anyone who has taken a closer look may discover that the oil sands are not in fact the irredeemable catastrophe depicted in their most strident opponents’ rhetoric. On the other hand, some of the boasts in CAPP’s communications are easily factchecked to reveal a far more complicated story than the one being told in the ads. Take the Gaudet vignette shot in Syncrude’s reclaimed forest, which CAPP’s own website proudly boasts is the first to receive official “reclaimed” status from the Alberta government—all 104 hectares of it, last mined in 1983. The site also notes that 22% of Syncrude’s total disturbed land has been reclaimed, linking directly to Syncrude’s own explanation that 4,500 hectares of its land is “either reclaimed or prepared for re-vegetation activities.” A cursory Google search reveals that less than 10% of the forest distrurbed by the industry as a whole has been restored in any form to date—which is ultimately the only figure that matters.

As the spotlight on the oil sands only grows wider and brighter, Abbott suggests the industry is in danger of missing an opportunity to turn all the scrutiny to its advantage. “This is an opportunity to not do the expected thing and unleash a barrage of ads. Let’s actually think this through and talk about the kind of story that’s going to draw people in, a real story that actually speaks to what we’re doing now and hopefully doing better, but also how we see the oil sands game unfolding over the next generation. Thus far, that kind of deeper narrative has been absent from the campaign, perhaps intentionally. But I would say, gosh, that strikes me as an opportunity that’s either missed or still waiting to be seized.”

Social media presents enormous opportunities for the oil patch, but to date it has been a much more powerful tool for subversion of the industry’s sunny messages. The campaign against Keystone XL was organized and executed with huge help from Twitter and Facebook, the Yes Men’s Shell party spoof was a viral marketing clinic, and it’s hard to imagine an oil company providing an open-source tool like the one that allowed thousands of people to make their own “Let’s Go” parodies.

The biggest challenge for the oil patch is cultural: by nature and longstanding habit, most oil companies have been tightlipped, top-down operations. As Mark Pigott of Brand Insights, who has worked on numerous marketing campaigns in the oil patch, points out, “The tone of the messaging, the channel of the messaging, the source of the messaging so often comes across as defensive, deflective and almost an attempt to buy time so that we can get through this mess and hopefully nothing else will happen.” Social media channels allow maligned companies to engage their critics as never before, but they can only succeed if they become much more nimble and open. “The majority of people resident in these companies are doing good things, want to do good things, but quite frankly are living in cultures that over time suppress the ability to talk about them,” says Pigott.

If the oil sands needs a model for such a bold strategy, it could surf on over to YouTube to look at McDonald’s Canada’s bold response to its critics. Like the oil sands, fast food has been beseiged by ever greater scrutiny and withering criticism in recent years—so much so that many of the biggest chains spend millions on glossy marketing campaigns designed simply to reassure their customers that the food they serve is made from the raw materials they claim it is.

As part of this effort, McDonald’s Canada launched an online campaign called “Our Food. Your Questions.” In a series of short films, real McDonald’s customers ask the company any question they choose. “Is the chicken real meat?” “Do you use GMO ingredients?” One customer asked, “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what is in the store?” In the video response, the company’s marketing director picked up a burger at a Toronto McDonald’s and then took it to a photo shoot for the same product, dissecting the process of food styling and marketing glitz in forensic detail. As reward for such an unguarded peek behind the scenes, the video has been watched more than six million times on YouTube.

Imagine a CAPP ad in which an oil sands reclamation expert shows viewers not the one little swatch of reclaimed land but instead the fine details of the arduous engineering work involved in transforming today’s stripmined landscapes—the very ones plastered on their critics’ protest signs—back into functional forest. It would be a much more complicated story, to be sure, but if six million YouTube views is any evidence, it’d be a much more resonant one.

There are hints of such opportunity in the other high-profile oil sands rebranding effort now underway—the one launched by Cenovus Energy around the same time as CAPP’s campaign. Cenovus is a young company, spun off of EnCana at the end of 2009 to rebrand its oil sands operations. Cenovus’ marketing strategy has deliberately tried to avoid the standard paths and shopworn themes. Its smart, slick ads place oil sands extraction in a grand Canadian tradition of innovation alongside the national railway and Canadarm and show aerial views of its “in situ” bitumen mining operations, which bear little resemblance to the industry’s infamous lunar-landscaped strip mines. A series of short ads under the title “More Than Fuel” highlights the essential petrochemical ingredients in touchscreens and artificial limbs. The commercials have run exclusively in movie theatres, and print ads have been pointedly placed not in the business pages, but in general interest women’s magazines like Chatelaine and Canadian House & Home.

The campaign, Cenovus external communications manager Leanne Deighton explains, emerged out of a series of workshops that revealed a large audience alienated by the furious rhetoric of the oil sands debate. “People don’t really need to know the ins and outs of our business,” Deighton explains. “They just want to know why you need oil and gas and in the simplest way, how we’re developing it in the most responsible way that we can.”

Cenovus’ “A Different Oil Sands” ad, Deighton says, had a particularly strong impact in focus groups. The commercial is dead simple—a single 30-second aerial shot of the company’s Foster Creek drilling operation, beginning tight on the familiar image of smokestacks and upgrading machinery and then pulling back to reveal dense forest all around. Because it’s an “in situ” drilling site extracting bitumen from far beneath the forest floor—as opposed to the strip-mining operations featured in environmentalist campaigns—there’s much less visible damage done on the surface.

“We’re trying to set the record straight as an industry,” Deighton says. “In the past we haven’t been out there, we haven’t necessarily done a great job talking to the public about how we develop the oil sands. In the absence of information people are going to sort of glom on to whatever information is out there.”

The company’s broader marketing strategy also includes the usual commitments to greater transparency and engagement—backed, refreshingly, by actual evidence. A Cenovus executive, for example, appeared as the industry fall guy in a segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on the “evil maple regime” enslaving America last year. And a campaign to identify its most influential critics and discuss concerns with them directly has recently been hatched. “It’s very clear to us that the days when you could stick your head in the sand and just ignore the conversation that’s going on out there are long gone,” Cenovus media relations advisor Brett Harris explains. “We have to engage with people, including our critics, and what we have to do is to educate them about what’s really going on out there.”

In the meantime, Cenovus’ conventional marketing efforts have already yielded some surprising results. Paul Hains, chief creative officer at Venture Communications, which produced the ads, says he braced for an angry response when they launched, but it never emerged. “I’ve done a lot of provocative beer commercials, and when you do some beer commercials you get 500 or a thousand complaints,” Hains explains. “What surprised me on this was the incredibly small number of any sort of issues or feedback or Twitter comments at all coming up.”

Lesson learned: Canadians take energy issues very seriously. But not as seriously as they take their beer.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 13 issue of Marketing.

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