“This ain’t your daddy’s oil,” the commercial proclaims, cutting to shots of spray paint being made and a wall covered in fanciful graffiti. “Oil strikes a pose. Oil taps potential. Oil pumps life.”
Oil, in short, is cool, the industry’s branding braintrust has declared. The 30-second spot rolled out this year is part of a broader American Petroleum Institute campaign to “raise awareness about the role natural gas and oil has in economic growth, job creation, environmental stewardship, and national security.”
Dubbed Power Past Impossible, the ads by the lobbying arm of America’s oil giants are all about millennials, the generation of roughly 21 to 35 year olds which out-sizes any other and makes up the largest chunk of the American workforce.
“It’s a shift in our messaging and our target that’s been in the works for several years,” says Marty Durbin, the institute’s chief strategy officer. “There isn’t a company out there that isn’t chasing the elusive millennials.”
That may be true, but there are few with the kind of uphill battle the oil industry faces in catching them. Millennials often frown on companies whose main products play a key role in global warming. A 2016 poll by the University of Texas found that 91 percent of those under the age of 35 said climate change is occurring and just over half supported a carbon tax. About two thirds of millennial-aged voters said energy issues influenced how they vote and that they plan to by an alternative fuel vehicle.
“What exactly were you guys thinking making a commercial aimed at young people?”
The spray paint ad, it turns out, got a decidedly mixed a reaction.
“What exactly were you guys thinking making a commercial aimed at young people,” tweeted one viewer. “Every time I see it I’m reminded of how [expletive] of a resource petroleum is ecologically and how dumb it was to advertise ... that way.”
Millennials prefer brands that come across as “conscious capitalists,” explained Jeff Fromm, an expert in marketing to younger Americans. “Any mature industry has to think about the fact that there’s a new sheriff in town with new values, new spending habits,” he added, referring to millennials. “Legacy brands often have that challenge.”
Beyond reintroducing the brand, the Big Energy ad blitz has a more daunting task: convincing millennials to work for the industry. In the coming years, fossil fuel companies expect “to see a big turnover, sometimes called ‘the big crew change,’” Durbin says. “We started to reach out to different demographics—women, veterans, minorities—to educate them on what the industry does and to learn what would pique their interest.”
Getting millennials to take these jobs, which tend to pay well but come with their own risks, won’t be easy for an additional reason. Unemployment is at a 16-year low and talented engineering graduates are flocking to Silicon Valley for internships and first jobs that pay more than the median national wage. This adds even more pressure on the oil industry to spiff up its image, insofar as it can, to lure young workers with lots of choices.
Asking a millennial to work for an oil company instead of Tesla is a tough proposition.
“Oil and gas companies may need more profound changes to meet demands for meaningful work and social responsibility to attract the next generation of top engineering and leadership talent,” McKinsey & Co. wrote in a September 2016 report on the future of the oil sector. Asking a millennial to choose between a green-tech company like Tesla Inc., which makes cars that don’t pollute, and an oil company, which fuels those that do, is a difficult proposition.
The consulting firm found 14 percent of millennials would reject a career in oil because of the industry’s image. That’s the highest of any industry polled by McKinsey. Only 2 percent of American college graduates list the oil and gas sector as their first choice for a job, according to research by Accenture, a professional services company.
Even among those unsure of their path, the news isn’t good. Less than half of millennials without a set career find appeal in oil and gas, according to the recently released EY U.S. Oil and Gas Perception poll. Women were more likely to reject the industry than men. And its only going to get worse as time goes on: The generation after millennials, commonly referred to as ‘Z’, turned their nose up at oil jobs even more frequently.
Part of the issue, EY found, was a disconnect between what millennials want from a job and what oil executives think they want—and it has nothing to do with the environment. Asked what they prioritize in a job, 56 percent of millennials said salary, followed closely by work-life balance, job stability, and job happiness. Industry executives thought far more millennials were driven primarily by salary, an anachronistic viewpoint that may illustrate the generational challenge faced by their branding campaign.
Millennials have a similarly dated outlook, it turns out. EY found they view the oil industry as packed with roughnecks, and the work as “blue-collar, dangerous, and physically demanding,” despite much of the sector being office-based and engineering-focused.
Accenture, in a recent report, said most sectors facing a professional talent crunch can rely on new college graduates to fill vacancies.
“That’s not the case for oil and gas operators,” Accenture said. “Many millennials believe the sector is lacking innovation, agility, and creativity, as well as opportunities to engage in meaningful work.”
At the very least, this perception is what the American Petroleum Institute says it hopes to change. “Millennials are interested in innovative, high technology industries,” Durbin says. “If they don’t have that view of our industry, we have the opportunity to change that. If you want to go into high-tech engineering, look at our industry.”
Durbin concedes the ad campaign won’t change the mind of every millennial. “ There are those out there who we are never going to get,” he says. “ There are some who are going to say ‘I don’t like the industry.’”
But Durbin, and oil companies in general, may be happy with just letting people know there are jobs to be had, even if the campaign invites abuse from some young people who see fossil fuels as a blight.
“ It’s a very different flavor from what we had done before,” Durbin says. “ It’s gotten people talking.”
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