by Diane Bégin

    What Makes Oil Companies Likeable?

    A few years ago someone called me a hypocrite because I said I could never work for an oil and gas company. Growing up in the heart of oil and gas country – in northern Alberta – it could be a surprising assertion. Or not.

    Then again there’s that George Bernard Shaw saying, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

    That, and a reminder of my belief as a PR practitioner that anyone is worthy of transparent communication, did the trick.

    The recent Alberta election was a clear call for change, for progress. 

    Industry responsiveness to date has been good, with individual CEOs and the petroleum industry as a whole looking forward to collaboration. And some since also making assertive statements on climate change action.  

    The final enabler in the Alberta provincial vote though was how individuals responded to specific individuals. It’s a simple principle that makes us human. It’s also at the core of effective communications. 

    Relating to an individual can also work in the personification of brands – basically giving human characteristics to something nonhuman can make a brand more relatable. 

    Mac versus PC ads was one way Apple created even stronger loyalty. The magic comes not from just creating a human, but (of course) a likeable human. 

    How does likability translate to brands?

    “Like” or even “love” of the Apple experience for most people is tangible. Who hasn’t heard someone say “I love my iPhone”?

    But love is a harder concept for resource sector brands. 

    Even in Alberta, oil and gas brands have not made the top ten most lovable in 2014 and 2015 Ipsos research. (Noteworthy: Only consumer-facing oil and gas companies were included. The cities of Calgary and Edmonton moved into the Ipsos top 10 list in 2015 – both recognized as cities with likeable mayors.) 

    Even though oil and gas gets us places and is found in over 6,000 everyday products (including smartphones), it’s hard to imagine loving.  

    Love of inanimate objects tends to be reserved for those few things that obviously (to me as an individual) make my life better. 

    Instead of love, some brands – like oil and gas companies – should aspire for like.

    Last year, APEX Public Relations explored the idea of personification of oil and gas by asking a few people what words they’d use to describe the industry. We did this to make the industry more tangible. 

    The feedback from our sample was telling, but begged more exploration. 

    In a recent Google Consumer Survey we asked this simple question:

    “If the oil & gas industry was a person, what one word would you use to describe that individual?”

    With hundreds of possible good, bad or neutral options, an undirected open-ended question to 1,500 Canadians returned hundreds of different responses.  

    Still, the top choice was greedy (or greed). It was present almost 15 per cent of the time, making it statistically significant (i.e. this answer would be the same 95 per cent of the time).

    More research would be needed to fully flesh out the perceived persona of oil and gas within Canada.

    But, one thing we found compelling in our initial research last year was that regardless of how a person described the oil and gas industry (using words similar to those in our survey), every interviewee felt the industry had an important role to play in our country’s future. 

    Since change is in the air, it’s time to try to move from “necessary evil” to “likeable.”

    How can oil companies be likeable?

    A 2013 Journal of General Management article on “The Brand Likeability Effect” defined four steps. 

    1. Understand brand like-ability concepts

    There are seven characteristics that stimulate likability of brands with consumers:

    1. Credibility;
    2. Attractiveness;
    3. Similarity;
    4. Familiarity;
    5. Expertise;
    6. Trustworthiness; and,
    7. Fairness.

    The first step is determining which characteristics are part of your brand promise. Create a persona for those characteristics and then live it in everything from your tweets to your CEO’s speeches.

    2. Benchmark and measure

    How likeable you are now? You’ll want to know and then measure regularly to see if actions are improving your score. Frameworks like the RATER model (measuring reliability, assurance, tangibles, empathy and responsiveness) can be used.   

    3. Establish long-term competitive sustainability

    Short-term strategies will only take you so far, it’s really about the long-term commitment to fairness that turns things around for brands. That means open and transparent communications and demonstrating behaviour that benefits society. 

    Alex Epstein talks about this in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels in that no one focuses on how the industry has helped expand life expectancy for example.

    4. Differentiate yourself 

    In the same way we encourage kids to be their unique selves, oil and gas brands need to establish what makes them unique amongst competitors. 

    Strategy Magazine recently reported a study in which almost half the global population under 35 is attracted to brands considered rebellious. That’s something. 

    But, why bother changing?

    It’s a compelling question without a simple answer. But, when one oil company decides to finally shift the way it communicates, that in itself could be a game-changer.

    Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

    That, combined with the death of “never” is enough reason for progress.

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