Tim Rich : Stall tactics take effect

While the country ground to a standstill during the fuel crisis, an opportunity arose that could have changed the public’s opinion of the petrol companies.

One of the most startling images from the recent fuel crisis was of an Esso employee increasing the price of petrol shown on a display board. Above the sign were the words Price Watch and a close-up of a tiger’s eyes. The petroleum giant had unwittingly condemned itself through its own words and its “friend of the consumer” cat had turned around and bitten it on the arse.

Other photographs in the press that day showed Dump the Pump protesters picketing fuel depots. In the background of these images blazed short, sharp slogans etched on to anything, from bed sheets to flattened cardboard boxes. Some items were held, some were fixed on to vehicles; others hung from fences and lamp posts. Many demonstrators had used thick upper case lettering and this simple, instinctive and urgent approach immediately conveyed the determination and honesty behind the slogans.

Whether you agreed with them or not (I, for one, was in the “Send in the SAS” camp), these were words written by passionate people. Fresh placards appeared throughout the campaign, as protesters listened to the latest news on the radio and reacted by banging out new slogans and hoisting them in front of TV crews and press photographers.

While this cycle of messaging got ever faster, the corporate behemoths were left graphically immobile – their vehicles and buildings transforming before our eyes from carefully constructed brand statements to symbols of corporate complacency.

Whichever side you took, you had to agree that in corporate branding terms these companies – which spend millions of pounds nurturing their image – had been ambushed by a bunch of people who wouldn’t know one end of a brand manual from the other.

Only a few weeks before the first direct action BP had proudly unveiled its new Spiragraph squiggle to the world, together with a load of old tosh about being “Beyond Petroleum” (courtesy of global corporate identity consultancy Landor Associates). Well here it was being given the chance to live up to that phrase, and did it? Well, I don’t remember buying anything BP sold or said during the blockade. And yet, as the crisis unfolded, it became clear to everyone just how fundamental the petroleum companies’ work is to our well-being.

In our ever-more complex, ever-more dissociated world it is easy to be ignorant of how our lives are locked in a tight little grid of need and supply. I hadn’t thought about hospital cleaners not being able to get to work, food suppliers failing to reach supermarkets or our mullet-haired postie not being able to roar up in his van and shove a large, fragile package through our small letterbox. I hadn’t thought about the fire brigade needing to fill up or meals-on-wheels relying on the likes of Shell or the ridiculously monikered TotalFinaElf.

I hadn’t made the connections. But then, neither had the petroleum companies. I don’t remember hearing about how their products help vital workers get to work and essential stuff get distributed. I do remember them talking a lot about price, product performance and promotions, but not about the value of what they do. It seems to me they all missed a great story there – a story that would have made waverers think before tooting their horn in support of the Dump the Pumpers. “BP – Beyond Propaganda” – was the missed opportunity.

Of course, we will now see our industry at its worst. There will be lots of hand-wringing in the brand and communication departments of these businesses, and their consultancies will now be hard at work looking for ways to express their client’s worth to society. Reactive corporate brand communications – as palatable as a pint of four star.

If I was the managing director of one of these companies I would be asking some hard questions of the consultancies which had invoiced me for brand and communications work over the last few years. I would want to know why, having invested millions seeking differentiation, I had enjoyed no points of difference with my competitors throughout the campaign. I should like to know why so few Britons really understood the essential role transport fuel plays in the day-to-day life of this country. And I would want to know why – despite constant talk about the power of brands, the speed of digital media channels and the creativity of the marketing industry – my billion pound organisation was out-messaged by a bunch of farmers and truck drivers with a magic marker.

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