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Oil sands companies look to clean up their image

The Cenovus ads are designed to speak to regular Canadians about the benefits of the materials extracted from oil.


If I tell you a secret, will you promise to not repeat it to my colleagues here in the Report on Business?

Okay, here goes: There's a big world outside of these pages and, sometimes, even important business matters get decided by people who rarely read what we write.

What, you may ask, has led me to this revelation? Something I found in this month's Chatelaine magazine, nestled between a recipe for salted caramel popcorn balls and a bittersweet heart-to-heart with the newly divorced figure skater Jamie Salé. It was a picture of a couple lovingly regarding an ultrasound image of their child-to-be.

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Allow me to explain. Last winter, when oil sands giant Cenovus Energy Inc. broke off from EnCana Corp. and wanted to figure out how to establish itself as a brand among Canadians, it convened focus groups in four cities across the country that proved very eye-opening. "Traditionally, the industry has communicated technical and financial information through the business section," notes Jennifer Cioffi, the president of Venture Communications. "So the researchers cut out a whole swath of articles and put them on a wall, and said [to participants] 'We need you to go over and pick which of these articles would attract your attention and engage you.' And they essentially said: 'None of the above.' "

She laughs. "It's because they're not the audience for that information, right?"

So Cenovus and its ad agency Venture created a campaign designed to speak to regular Canadians in unexpected ways, and in unexpected places.

It would be hard to miss the resulting multi-million-dollar mass media effort, which is on television, in cinemas, on the Internet, and in a whack of consumer magazines that, beyond Chatelaine, includes Canadian House & Home, Canadian Health & Lifestyle, CAA Magazine, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, and Maclean's. "We chose magazines over newsprint because we wanted it to be a more contemplative environment," Ms. Cioffi says.

When they first see the ads, though, people might not realize what they're contemplating. One cinema and TV spot opens on the pulsating image of a blurry star field, then pulls back to reveal the viewer is actually looking at a slate computer in the hands of a young woman. "100 years ago, it sparked an engine. Today, it sparks an imagination," reads the ad's on-screen text, which fades into: "Oil is more than just a source of fuel. It's an essential part of product innovation."

Another opens tightly on the soft thwack of pliable metal slapping against cement, then pulls back to reveal a double-amputee runner moving swiftly along a road with the help of a pair of carbon-fibre prosthetics fitted below the knee. "90 years ago, it ran a car. Today, it runs a marathon," reads the text.

All of the ads point to the website, which explains how materials extracted from oil are integral parts of computer displays, ultrasound technology and other innovations.

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The Cenovus campaign coincides with an even larger effort from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which includes full-page ads featuring photographs of casually dressed engineers perched among the pines and tall grasses offering reassurances that everyone involved in oil sands extraction is working hard to protect the environment. Television ads show flowing natural streams and emphasize the industry's desire to embrace new, cleaner mining methods.

Syncrude Canada, another oil sands player, has also aired a series of radio ads featuring employees who boast of the company's work in developing better methods of managing tailings, and its status as one of the country's largest employers of aboriginal people.

These are, of course, trying times for the oil sands industry, which has had its reputation buffeted in the last few months by ducks being killed en masse by landing in Syncrude tailings ponds, a high-profile visit by the Hollywood director James Cameron, and a Web video calling on tourists to "Rethink Alberta" because of the environmental toll wrought by development.

"It's been a challenge," says Rhona DelFrari, a Cenovus spokeswoman. "All of us see the negative headlines."

But Ms. Cioffi says the industry's troubles actually began when the Alberta government conducted its 2007 Royalty Review, which analyzed whether oil companies were paying sufficient compensation to the province for extraction rights.

"That was the first moment where the industry realized that sticking to their knitting and focusing exclusively on the business wasn't necessarily going to work in the longer term, because everyone's participating in the energy debate now," she said. "They need to engage the broader public in that debate, and they need to have a voice in that debate because, in the absence of having that voice, people create one for them. And people love to create a negative voice when dealing with business in general, and this business in particular."

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The companies, Ms. Cioffi notes, aren't natural communicators. "They're largely run by engineers, who are focused on engineering."

In this, there is a strong parallel with another company where Ms. Cioffi was once employed: Microsoft. That company, too, was run by engineers who didn't realize until it was too late that their freedom to operate was ultimately circumscribed by governments, which themselves were subject to public opinion.

In late 2001, three years after being hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice over its monopolistic practices, Microsoft settled. The following year, it mounted a massive advertising campaign that the Cenovus effort, with its emphasis on technology, now echoes. Under the banner of "Realizing Potential" Microsoft spent about $400-million promoting the notion that its technology helped individuals achieve extraordinary things. It especially pushed its partnerships with child-centred organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

And so Cenovus, too, is emphasizing its futuristic stance. "Our CEO likes to say that we're a technology company that happens to work in the oil and gas industry," Ms. DelFrari says.

Still, the nuts and bolts of high-tech aren't easy for regular people to understand, so Cenovus has avoided discussions of the PhD-level physics and chemistry of their endeavours. "Cenovus has deliberately set out to have a different kind of voice, that is more approachable and accessible to the broader audience than has traditionally been demonstrated in the industry," Ms. Cioffi says.

At the moment, the discussion is very civil. Who could object, after all, to images of ultrasounds and Paralympians running marathons? In a few months, though, things may heat up as Cenovus rolls out a second wave of ads that focuses on its oil sands activities. A third wave will discuss the specific connections between the company and high technology.

"This is very much a long-term investment philosophy," Ms. Cioffi says. "Where we've been realistic is, we've said [to Cenovus] 'Perceptions change slowly over time, and this is the kind of thing where they can't come in with a quick blast, have an interesting and amazing campaign, and then go dark again.' "

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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