When BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April, killing 11 workers, the company's pretty green and yellow floral logo was about as much use in stemming the resultant 2,000 square mile-plus oil slick that contaminated the Gulf of Mexico as it was in convincing us of BP's corporate commitment to the environment.
We're all wiser these days to the subtleties of greenwashing, the practice of companies using advertising and marketing messages to persuade us that they care that bit more about their ecological responsibilities. So David Jones, one of the world's foremost admen and the global chief executive of the advertising and communications group Havas, will have his work cut out addressing the Sustainable Planet forum, which takes place in Lyon over the next three days.
He will have harsh messages for business, he promises. The days when the corporate world could pull the wool over the eyes of consumers with slick but hollow slogans are long over and, thanks to the growth of social media, it is the public that now has the whip hand in evaluating a company's green credentials.
Jones, 42, is something of an expert in this area, a long-standing advocate of the need and value of putting corporate responsibility at the core of a business. He is the global chief executive of the Havas-owned advertising agency Euro RSCG, which ran the TckTckTck climate change awareness campaign with the former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan last year and is an adviser on sustainability to Nicolas Sarkozy's French government.
According to Jones, companies have had drastically to alter their stance on green issues over the past 20 years. BP, he says, was the poster child for what he describes as the "decade of image", the final 10 years of the last century. "In the decade of image, the majority of people did not genuinely change their business but decided that if they had a couple of nice marketing messages, they could convince the world that they were a great company and do better because of it," he says. "I think BP were the poster child for that, the rebranding into a flower and the Beyond Petroleum campaign and all of that."
In its Beyond Petroleum campaign, BP boasted of its work in producing solar energy and natural gas and, alongside beautiful imagery of partially submerged trees, opined that "Beyond... means starting a journey that will take the world's expectations of energy beyond what anyone can see today." Jones derides the campaign, from 2000, saying: "Quite frankly, it was probably the biggest over-claim we have ever seen in the world of marketing."
With the coming of the new millennium, business started to become more sophisticated, he argues. In the "decade of advantage", the smartest companies "genuinely put socially responsible business at their core and actually gained significant competitive advantages because of it". Jones, an Englishman based in New York, praises Walmart for having transformed its image in the United States, through a green approach. "It completely re-engineered its reputation in North America and became one of the most respected and admired companies in terms of what it was doing. A decade earlier, it had real [image] problems," he says. "The critical point was that it was genuine and it probably did more to change its supply chain and logistics in terms of sustainability than any major company has ever done." He cites Marks & Spencer as a British company that achieved a similar effect with its Plan A campaign (so called because there was no Plan B) setting out 100 commitments to "do the right thing". Jones says: "Plan A repositioned the company in a completely different way in people's minds. It was incredibly overt and everywhere across print and websites. I think it was genuine and had a very positive impact on their image."
Which brings us to 2010 and the start of the "decade of damage", as Jones calls it. "We are now moving into a decade where consumers can vote against you with their wallets and your business will be damaged. Consumers now have the power through social media to really 'punish' those companies who don't live up to their standards."
Once again, BP is the prime example. Jones points to the Twitter account @BPGlobalPR, set up by a man calling himself "Leroy Stick (aka a guy in his boxer shorts)". Stick started his Twitter account "because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing". So he began making jokes at the company's expense.
The account quickly attracted 180,000 followers, vastly more than the official BP Twitter account. Stick also restyled the logo in a splattered black. "It was a very interesting lesson for the world we live in today," Jones says, "that one individual can have over 10 times the followers that one of the world's biggest companies has." The name Leroy Stick was itself a pseudonym, inspired by the piece of wood the Twitter author and his father used to curb a dangerous dog called Leroy that terrorised their neighbourhood in his childhood. BP was being treated as a corporate Leroy.
Before the economic downturn, Euro RSCG conducted a global survey of consumer attitudes to ethical business and found that 80 per cent of respondents believed they had a responsibility to censure unethical companies by boycotting their products, while 83 per cent believed ethical business should be the norm and they should not be made to pay a premium price for ethical goods and services.
Chief executives have a key role to play in emphasising the sincerity of a company's approach. Jones argues that Apple's recent problems over faults with the iPhone 4 were largely due to the company's reluctance to communicate more with consumers. "The culture of Apple is not open and transparent," he says. "It closed off and denied it and only after $9-10bn of share price erosion did it start getting its act together. It's all about transparency, authenticity and speed. Those three things are critical in the social media world."
Jones, who is fluent in French and German, has long been one of advertising's leading global thinkers. He was the youngest board member of the giant Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO at the age of 28 and was running Australia's leading agency at 32. When he was overseeing Euro RSCG's global accounts in London, he commuted to the office from Paris via Eurostar. He is advising Nicolas Sarkozy's government on the issue of sustainability during France's presidency of the G20. Tomorrow, he will be in Zurich to launch the next instalment of One Young World, an annual Euro RSCG initiative to gather inspirational young people from around the planet under the same roof.
The TckTckTck campaign ahead of the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen drew the support of more than 10 million "climate allies" without a penny being spent on traditional media campaigning. "The whole idea was to create an open-source idea, something people would pass on," Jones says. "We would advise clients that it's much more important today to create content that people can share than to create content that you control and own."
In pursuing that strategy, he warns, companies should be careful not to promise something that they know they can't deliver. "If you start trying to make a small initiative into claiming you are the most green and ecologically friendly company in the world, it will come back to bite you, and one of the reasons that BP fell so hard was because of the huge over-claim," he says. "I'm not saying the oil business is easy and if tomorrow we all had to live without oil we would be in serious trouble. But you don't have to change your logo to a flower and give everyone the impression that you press wild daisies for a living. That's one of the reasons why the backlash against them was so harsh."Reuse content