Shell ‘transfusion’ could end in tears

If you’re a global brand with a tired, slightly tarnished image, what do you do? The events of this week might suggest that linking it with high-octane motor cars is not the wisest of counsels. But that is exactly what Shell is doing in its new soft-sell global campaign, which breaks later this year.

The campaign is the brainchild of Shell International’s marketing director Raoul Pinnell and, as he says: ‘If Shell is a little traditional, old and dull, Ferrari is young and lively.’ Just so; and under Fangio and now Schumacher it’s all about winning, too. A relevant, romantic image that will help to dispel the sinister heritage of Brent Spar and Ogoniland. Nor is this all. Pinnell has also formed a brand alliance with Lego, to bring in the rest of the family. If all goes well, Shell will end up as one of the world’s largest toy distributors. Rather neatly, Lego will be linked to Ferrari, and therefore the global campaign, through a customised Ferrari Formula One kit-car bearing the Shell logo.

It’s what Pinnell calls ‘image transfer’ but what more accurately could be described as ‘transfusion’. Critics suggest it is a desperate measure stemming from chronic brand weakness. To which Pinnell’s reply, modestly enough, is that it is nothing original; no more than what Coca-Cola does with sport and Pepsi with youth culture. And these, after all, are global brands that could hardly be accused of serious weakness.

But there is a difference between generic ‘transfer,’ which is what Coke is up to, and the strategic brands coalition that Shell has put together. Strategic partners need meticulous vetting before they are taken on; otherwise a tactical nightmare is the result. Shell will know this from the Shell Smart card affair, where commercial tensions between the original partners eventually overrode their short-term common interests. The Ferrari/Lego alliance is, mercifully, simpler and more commercially clear-cut. If Shell is trading on Ferrari’s racing heritage, it is also true that it is pumping a colossal investment, through long-term sponsorship, into ensuring that heritage remains up to speed. Similarly, it hopes to develop a symbiotic relationship with Lego, whereby future TV commercials supporting the global promotion will be paid for with profits generated by existing Lego forecourt sales.

But there are dangers all the same. Shell could be accused of making itself a hostage to Ferrari’s fortunes. What happens if, perish the thought, a spectacular accident occurs on the track?

Cover Story, page 44

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