Trouble in the pipeline for Esso

Corporate vilification is the modern-day nightmare for marketers. Once, it was a case of a product failing to live up to performance-related claims in one market. Now, it is the fear of consumers biting back and targeting a company on a global scale for perceived misdemeanors or misplaced morality.

Exxon Mobil is the latest company to be added to a long list of corporate targets that includes rival Shell, which has come under fire in the past from environmentalists for its plans to sink the Brent Spar oil platform. Esso, the European arm of Exxon Mobil is now under the spotlight following US President George W Bush’s decision not to ratify the Kyoto accord, designed to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Exxon, which like other oil companies has made donations to Bush’s Republican Party, says that the accord is unworkable.

However, the ever-vigilant questioning mood in Europe is a far cry from that in the US, where a certain degree of nationalistic and corporate arrogance is allowed to pervade.

Environmentalists have switched their attentions from the likes of Shell and BP to make Esso the target of a consumer boycott campaign. A number of ads featuring Bush with the Esso brand name in his blazing eyes have appeared. And the European visit of Bush earlier this month gave the Stop Esso campaign automatic exposure around the globe. Previous targets of the environmental lobby – BP and Shell – remain firmly wedded in their support of the Kyoto agreement.

Yet it is not as if Esso is completely oblivious to the power of the environmental lobby and the need to present an image acceptable to the public at large. It has used its corporate icon – The Tiger – to front a campaign to save the endangered species. The company has also sponsored the Tree Council’s the mass planting of trees for National Tree Week for the past six years.

But its stance on climate change has now prompted Greenpeace and the Stop Esso campaign to question Esso’s motives. They have called on the Tree Council to review the sponsorship arrangements.

Like The Sun newspaper, Nestlé, Barclays, Nike and the fur and diamond trades, Esso will no doubt try to weather the storm of a consumer boycott in Europe. But once flung mud sticks and even the most non-activist of consumers may well vote by driving past Esso-branded forecourts and on to rivals.

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