Why, at 109 years old, Shell is turning to musical influencers like Pixie Lott for its #MakeTheFuture campaign

When you think of Shell your first thought is likely to be oil, but the ubiquitous brand has been looking to push its innovation credentials of late and open a dialogue about the future of the energy industry. Here the firm's global marketing lead discusses the campaign and why the brand will continue to be "agnostic" about putting all its social eggs in one basket.

Besides their aptitude for music what do Pixie Lott, Jennifer Hudson and Steve Aoki have in common? The trio feature in Shell’s #MakeTheFuture campaign which is aimed at millennials and looks to highlight the global giant’s partnerships with energy startups.

The drive seeks to show that collaboration can transform anything be it technology, or a piece of music, while underscoring the need for greater global alliances to create cleaner energy solutions. So, the artists involved teamed up with other stars including Brazilian singer Luan Santana, China’s Tan WeiWei and Nigerian popstar Yemi Alade to record a song and interactive music video for Shell.

Titled ‘Best Day of My Life’, the film (above) showcases six of the sustainability projects the brand is supporting – which range from Bio-bean, a startup which explores how to reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by turning coffee dregs into fuel to Pavegen, a tech firm that that has developed paving slabs to convert people’s footsteps into energy that can power communities.

The popstar-powered push may at first seem unusual for a brand like Shell, but global vice president of brand , and chief executive of Shell Brands International AG, Dean Aragon, told The Drum that the 109-year-old behemoth wanted the campaign to be part of the “conversation for the future” rather than just “being a nostalgic celebration of its heritage”.

Aragon observes that for most people the discussions around the future of energy are difficult to engage with because it’s not necessarily clear how these issues connect to their current or daily lives so getting "pop icons" on board was a no brainer.

One way of showing this to millennials, he muses, is to focus on the importance of things that energy powers – like their Wi-Fi connection, or their mobile devices. But opening that dialogue also comes with a responsibility to ensure that the content around is engaging and sparks change.

“We also need to make sure we are honest about what it’s about and what it’s not about, and how Shell is in its own way helping catalyse these conversations and these activities,” he adds.

Keeping it authentic

Indeed the spot has been a hit on social for Shell – clocking up over 7m views on YouTube and 52m on Facebook and marks the start of a 12-month relay of activations which puts the six entrepreneurs that the firm is helping to develop front and centre.

As part of the drive, technologies from the bright energy startups were showcased in Rio de Janeiro’s Santa Marta last month, ahead of their installation in communities that require urgent access to cleaner energy. Santa Marta was chosen for the launch as the region because it is currently benefiting from an initiative produced by Insolar, a solar energy upstart that is also one of Shell’s featured entrepreneurs.

As part of the mammoth project a separate event in London brought together the innovators as part of a Make the Future festival, which was attended by more than 30,000 people and supported by ambassadors like Pelé and Kimi Raikkonen. Another activation saw ‘Smack That’ singer Akon open a solar-powered football pitch in Lagos, while an ad promoting Shell's long-running 'Eco Marathon' experience featured Jay Leno.

Although there are a lot of celebrity names attached to the push, Aragon says that the brand was careful in picking who it worked and that they had to prove themselves to be “kindred spirits”.

“That was crucial to ensuring that it is authentic and I think it boosts the relevance and credibility of the message,” he adds.

“One specific example would be Akon – we wanted to collaborate with an artist who had a kindred cause and it just so happened that Akon had advocacy and project around lighting Africa and therefore there was a clear intersection of aspirations.”

Evolving social

#MakeTheFuture is running across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – some of the associated events have even been streamed on Facebook Live, while Snapchat’s Stories feature gave fans in Rio behind the scenes access. When quizzed on Shell’s future social media plans Aragon believes the energy giant will continue to focus on a broad range of platforms rather than streamlining spend to one.

“I think the days of people getting excited about a specific platform and prescribing or preconceiving a particular initiative should be over, so we are far more agnostic.”

“So, for instance if we were targeting people who are engaging with STEM or engineers we believe that a more relevant platform would be LinkedIn rather than a friendship network like Facebook and Instagram. But, of course if we want to appeal to individuals within their daily lives, their social lives rather than their profession then networks like Facebook and increasingly Snapchat are relevant.

“We must evolve with the evolution of the platforms and that’s the thing that’s hardest because these are great times for marketers but they are also very challenging and difficult. It’s very easy to be seduced by the technological features of the platforms and forget what is important is the quality and engaging factor of the content.”

People will make up their own minds

Shell may be gearing up to appeal to future generations, but there's no denying this will come with some challenges.

It's been just two years since Greenpeace took aim at the corporation over its partnership with Lego. A video produced by Don't Panic dubbed 'Everything Is Not Awesome' (a pastiche of The Lego Movie's theme soon) slammed the toy brand's partnership with Shell causing them to end the relationship. The company has since abandoned controversial plans for Arctic oil and gas exploration, but not soon enough to stop it being named as the world's "most hated" brand by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for 2015.

It's clear the brand is making moves to shift these perceptions, particularly among young people, but how difficult will this process be?

"I think it can be challenging," asserts Aragon, "but it is behove on us to really be clear as to what our stance is and how we see things and more importantly what we’re doing about it."

"I think we, in our own small way, are really helping bring forward collaboration with others – like energy entrepreneurs and members of the public, students, and influencers – an overall effort to help accelerate the consultation, development and fruition of some of these smarter energy ideas.

"I think that’s what it takes and in the end people will make up their own minds but I think it’s important for us to share where we stand."