Fuel for thought

Green campaigners are calling for a boycott of Esso products because of the role its parent company, Exxon, played in the collapse of the Kyoto agreement.

This year’s National Tree Week, scheduled for late November, could be a glum affair. Since 1974 it has been an annual occasion to reflect on the importance of things arboreal, and to celebrate the contribution trees make to the environment. Thousands of schools, an environmentally concerned public and members of parliament have lent their support to the festival. Even Tony Blair has been photographed planting trees.

But this year, the unthinkable has happened. Green lobbyists have turned against the annual tree-fest. Environmental campaigners at Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have told Marketing Week that National Tree Week should be boycotted because it is sponsored by Esso, the European division of oil giant Exxon Mobil. The environmentalists say the public and politicians alike should blackball the event as part of the “Stop Esso” campaign.

The campaign, launched in the UK in early May, heaps blame on Exxon for the collapse of the Kyoto accord on climate change. The agreement’s collapse was triggered by US President George Bush’s decision not to push to ratify the treaty, which was rejected by the Senate in 1997. The campaigners claim Exxon is partly responsible for that decision as it has lobbied intensely against the protocol and has influenced Bush through campaign donations. In response, the campaigners are calling for a boycott of Esso products and services, including its 1,500 petrol stations around the UK.

Roger Higman, senior climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: “We have nothing against people planting trees, but there are bigger fish to fry. The first thing to do is stop global warming.”

Celebrities such as Bianca Jagger, Annie Lennox and Tory MP John Gummer are backing the Stop Esso campaign. Campaign co-ordinator Lorne Stockman says: “We’re not going to let Esso get away with polluting the planet to make its billions. It is not too big for the rest of us to stop it. If Esso chooses to sabotage the fight against global warming we can sabotage its profits.”

Exxon claims it is misrepresented by the Stop Esso campaign.

The Kyoto accord seeks to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels by some five per cent by 2012. It would create an international system of emissions trading, whereby a country which fails to meet its target can buy bonds from countries which have exceeded theirs. Exxon says the accord is unworkable. Environment writer Murray Sayle claims it never had a “snowflake’s chance in the Carboniferous” of succeeding. It is now “mostly of academic interestí” he says, “except perhaps as an object lesson in futility.” (London Review of Books, June 21, 2001)

According to those that oppose the Kyoto agreement, the protocol’s complex architecture would create a $2,000bn (£1,400bn) market in emissions permits which would be impossible to regulate. What would happen in the case of disputes? How would decisions be enforced and infringements policed? In addition, the accord excludes many developing countries which are responsible for high emissions and, according to Exxon, it would mean high costs for the developed world.

Exxon says developing alternative fossil fuels which produce fewer emissions is far more effective. It claims to be the first petrol company to introduce in the UK “cleaner fuels” such as low sulphur and lead-free petrol.

But the campaigners say it is imperative the accord goes ahead, as there is “no other deal on the table” for cutting carbon emissions in an organised global fashion. The US will become interested, they claim, when it sees the huge and profitable market for emissions permits in operation.

Campaigns by the greens over the past decade have had a high success rate – having forced Shell to abandon plans to sink the Brent Spar oil platform into the sea in 1995, and a substantial number of British food companies to exclude genetically modified organisms from their food products. Now, the campaigners are seeking to portray Exxon as “the number one global warming villain.”

While rivals Shell and BP, which are supportive of the Kyoto agreement, have fundamentally reconsidered their approach to the environment, and are investing in research on renewable energy, Exxon insists that fossil fuels are likely to remain the main energy source for many years to come.

Ignoring the issues

Marketers say that Exxon is out of step with trends in consumer marketing. Laura Sandys, international development director of PR agency, the Grayling Group, says: “Exxon hasn’t linked marketing and issue management. Consumers are becoming consumers of politics as well. The low turnout in the general election shows that instead of wanting to join one group, people want to consume politics on an issue by issue basis. They want instant gratification, an issue they can involve themselves in.”

She says Exxon operates as an old-fashioned industrial company, whereas the likes of BP and Shell have changed their management style to present themselves as service providers. “I haven’t seen Exxon show any transparency in its response to the campaign. It is still defensive.”

The shift in the way corporations interpret their relationship with customers – from product/service provider to a brand with a personality – has become a central part of marketing for many companies. It is not what they produce, nor how they communicate with customers, but what they stand for that is important.

Robin Azis, chief executive of HHCL, which creates the advertising for Esso rival Texaco, says: “Exxon has failed to recognise that we are moving into an era of the triple bottom line. In the past, companies looked at economic success in terms of shareholder value. Now there is a major move, driven by consumers and government, to defined success by the effects on society and the environment as well as by the economics.”

Azis says this affects not only relations with consumers, but can also influence recruitment. “People do not just want to work for any company, but one that they believe in,” he says, adding that, as product differentiation becomes increasingly rare and prices come down, “you would rather buy from companies that are doing good than not”.

Stephen Carver, director of the MBA communications course at the Cranfield School of Management, says he is “surprised” by Esso’s behaviour. “The oil majors have been through hell and back and have learnt the lesson that corporate arrogance costs them money,” he says.

Esso claims it does acknowledge the need to present a responsible public face. Its Save the Tiger campaign is one way it links marketing (its iconic Tiger features in the company’s ads) with wider environmental responsibility. Its promotion of tree planting is another. But the company goes to some lengths to cast doubt on the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming.

Forecasting climate change

Chief executive Lee Raymond says: “We agree that the potential for climate change caused by increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases may pose a legitimate long-term risk. However, we do not have a sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and justify drastic measures.”

On the one hand, the company supports mass planting of trees – up to 3 million over the years, which seems a fairly drastic initiative. Why would Exxon believe this is important if there really is insufficient understanding of climate change to justify other “drastic” measures?

An Esso statement says: “The myth that is being put forward by the activists is that ‘anti-Kyoto’ means ‘unconcerned about climate change’. That’s just not true. We are concerned about climate change but we don’t support the Kyoto protocol because we believe that it would do more harm than good. Many other companies and organisations share this view, yet we see little recognition of this in the articles which have appeared.

“We intend to continue being a responsible and active participant in the debate on how to address climate change more effectively than Kyoto. The boycott and accompanying hype attempts to stifle one side of the debate, which is entirely counter-productive to efforts to address this serious issue.”

However, an Esso spokesman declines to comment on what alternatives to Kyoto are being developed, saying that is a matter for governments.

Questionable influence

The Stop Esso campaign does make some questionable statements – the fact that Exxon stands out from the rest in its political contributions to Bush, for example. The figures are murky, but Exxon has not contributed much more than other oil companies, maybe a few thousand dollars, to the Republicans. But the issue remains that many consumers will choose to believe the greens rather than Esso, since brands are increasingly perceived in broad ideological terms without considering the details.

That is how branding works. People don’t choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi by assessing the ingredients, but by deciding which overall brand message suits them better.

The Stop Esso campaign is unlikely to have the nail-biting drama of the Brent Spar campaign, nor induce the nauseous feelings of the anti-GMO protests. But it may develop into a running sore over a long period, akin to the boycott of Nestlé over alleged abuses in the marketing of powdered baby milk in the developing world. That protest has lasted some 30 years. If the greens are right, we haven’t got three decades to hold back the tide of global warming. And Esso has much less time to wake up to the new millennium’s trends in branding.

Other Boycotts

Nike: In 1996 Life magazine carried a striking image of a 12-year-old Asian boy stitching a Nike football.

After a public outcry, Nike realised that, while its massive advertising budget would continue to drive sales, the company had to move its image away from slave wages and arbitrary abuse. Since then, Nike has striven to improve Asian working conditions, but is still vulnerable to consumer contempt.

The Sun: The newspaper sparked outrage on Merseyside after the April 1989 Hillsborough tragedy when, under a banner headline which read “The Truth”, it claimed the crush that killed 96 fans at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground was caused by drunken Liverpool supporters.

Following a boycott, The Sun lost sales of about 200,000 copies a day on Merseyside. Its sales in the region are still believed to be down by more than 120,000. Kelvin Mackenzie, who was the editor at the time, later admitted the story was a mistake.

Nestlé: Boycotted by students since the Seventies, when the company was first exposed for promoting baby milk in the Third World. Tins now carry a warning that powdered milk is not a substitute, but is intended as a supplement to breast feeding.

Fur: The wearing of fur has been the subject of general public outcry for several decades. While fur has made the odd reappearance on the catwalks at fashion shows, its use by the UK clothing industry has almost been wiped out. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the organisation which persuaded designers that fur was unacceptable, is now targeting leather.

Diamonds: Seen by some as the new fur, the diamond trade has come under increasing scrutiny following the gem’s connection with war, murder and atrocities in Africa. For instance, in Sierra Leone rebels over-ran the diamond fields to gain cash to buy arms to carry out their killings.

Barclays: The UK bank had extensive interests in South Africa, which it refused to withdraw from for two decades, while investing in businesses operating under the apartheid regime. It was subject to regular demonstrations, lost tens of thousands of potential customers and was overtaken as the UK’s biggest bank. It finally disposed of its South African investments in the mid-Eighties.

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