Mark Ritson on branding: Exxon vision is perilously short-term

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler outlined the crucial importance of an 'effective emblem', which he saw as 'the first impetus for the interest in the movement'.

His adoption of the swastika was a vital ingredient in the rise of National Socialism in Germany and its eventual domination of much of Europe. It is impossible, therefore, not to include the swastika, along with the Coca-Cola swirl or the Ford oval, as one of the 20th century's most iconic and important logos.

It is an uncomfortable inclusion. Any sane individual abhors everything the Nazis stood for, yet it is still possible to acknowledge the expert manner in which its brand identity was conceived without supporting the ends to which it was used.

I have similar feelings about ExxonMobil. Over the past eight years, it has masterminded one of the most impressive global communications campaigns in the history of public relations. At the same time, however, the company's success in obfuscating the issues in its response to global warming must surely rank as one of the most shameful exercises in corporate self-interest.

Despite mounting empirical evidence and the overwhelming weight of opinion from independent climate experts, ExxonMobil has managed to sow the seeds of doubt among consumers, the media and governments, thereby slowing any potential responses to global warming. It has achieved this through a combination of masterful PR, lobbying, strategic funding of NGOs and the leadership of its senior management.

In an unprecedented letter of complaint this month, The Royal Society, Britain's most respected scientific organisation, rebuked Exxon for funding organisations that promote a 'misleading' viewpoint and condemned the company's attempts to create a 'false sense ... that there is a two-sided debate going on in the scientific community about global warming'.

In contrast, BP has made concerted efforts to address the problem of climate change. While ExxonMobil only acknowledged the existence of a link between fossil fuels and global warming earlier this year, BP was the first major oil company to do so, in 1997, embarking on a now-famous repositioning that saw it move 'beyond petroleum' and include 'Green' as one of its brand values.

BP has actually executed on that brand positioning, having become one of the top three suppliers of solar energy, for example. It has also pledged to invest £8bn in hydrogen projects designed to capture carbon emissions.

ExxonMobil and BP provide us with two contrasting visions of marketing. The former represents the 20th-century version in which marketing is synonymous with spin, superficiality and even shadowy manipulation of truth. BP presents a vision of marketing for the 21st century, in which social welfare and long-term profitability co-exist and brands openly declare their agenda and then attempt to deliver substantively on their promises.

So far, it would appear that Exxon's approach works best. The company is enjoying record profits and a buoyant share price. Meanwhile, BP is struggling as the company endures a series of scandals and a very disappointing share price. Worse yet, its prominent brand focus has left it open to ridicule and criticism that some of its practices fall short of its aspirational values.

One of the great lessons of branding should give heart to BP, however. Building a strong brand is a very long-term pursuit. Success is measured in decades rather than quarters. Exxon is winning in the short term because its is a dangerously short-term vision. BP must hold firm to the course that its brand has so bravely charted.

As marketers - and residents of planet Earth - we have to hope that BP will eventually succeed and ExxonMobil and its shameful marketing practices will be consigned to the pages of history.

Read ExxonMobil's response here

- ExxonMobil is the world's biggest publicly listed corporation - and one of the biggest polluters. A Friends of the Earth study found it responsible for 5% of all man-made carbon dioxide emitted over the past 120 years.

- In 2001 the White House thanked it for its 'active involvement' in crafting US global warming policy, describing it as 'among the companies most actively ... opposed to binding approaches to cut greenhouse gas emissions'.

- In 2005 a record 28.3% of its shareholders voted to recommend that ExxonMobil review how it will meet greenhouse gas reduction targets in countries participating in the Kyoto Protocol. Exxon's board ignored the vote.

- When asked about global warming by the Wall Street Journal in March, outgoing ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson replied: 'At a minimum, there's an enormous amount of uncertainty around this whole question.'


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