There’s a video on YouTube I keep coming back to, even though I absolutely hate it. It’s a 46-minute mix of songs titled “Lofi glug glug mix – beats to drive/study to.” The buzzy, mostly wordless electronic tracks are set to an animation of an anime girl driving a car with a cheerful Shiba Inu hanging its tongue out the window. It’s a lot like other lo-fi mix compilations on YouTube, except in this one, there’s a tiny red car with a Conoco logo on the anime girl’s dashboard. That’s not an accident: The video was produced not by a random YouTube DJ, but by the official account of Conoco, a giant chain of gas stations owned by Phillips 66. (The “glug glug” in the title apparently refers to the sound of gas being pumped into a car.)
“No joke this actually isn’t too bad as late night cruising music,” the top comment reads. “Mad props to Conoco on this one as this is 🔥🔥🔥.”
I really, really hate that I agree.
Most oil and gas companies seem to struggle with how to present themselves on social media, isolating their brand presence to strictly photos of refineries on Instagram or making cringy statements about Pride on Twitter. Some have started dipping a toe into Instagram influencer marketing; an Earther investigation last month revealed that Shell has worked extensively with Instagram influencers, most recently on a campaign to promote a carbon offsets scheme for their gas. (Phillips 66 also worked with influencers on an Instagram campaign.)
But Conoco stands out from its competitors: Its social channels are filled with content they’ve created that’s actually interesting, mostly because it has absolutely nothing to do with gasoline. In one Instagram story, a makeup artist paints their face and chest to resemble a mountain scene, complete with gondola; there’s a short that starts off with a man whose body is a cat tree; there’s a whole series called Conococooks, which features “recipes” with illustrations for foods like “Thrilled Cheese” and “Hamburgizzadog.” The whole thing is well-designed and a little disorienting, meaning I spent a lot of time on their account just looking at posts (which, I suppose, is the goal of a social media campaign). The vibe is somewhat reminiscent of Brand Twitter, the ever-growing ecosystem of companies who attempt (sometimes too far) to assert a personality—think of how the Steak-Umms account keeps picking fights with Neil DeGrasse Tyson—but with a remove that makes it not too annoying.
Reaching a younger, Very Online crowd, it seems, is Conoco’s whole goal here. Most of Conoco’s social content appears to have been produced by Carmichael Lynch, an ad agency based out of Minneapolis. (Carmichael Lynch also ran the Phillips 66 campaign where it tapped Instagram influencers.) In a case study posted on their website, the agency sheds a lot of light on the goal of all this strange posting from a gasoline brand.
“Conoco wanted to reach 18-24-year-olds, a hard-to-engage audience,” the case study begins. “Skeptical of marketing and unlikely to interact with brands, they sit, text, curate and retweet in an endless stream of #content.”
Surveys have found that around 70% of this age group also experience eco-anxiety due to the climate change caused by the product Conoco is trying to sell them. But, of course, that wouldn’t make for a very good brand campaign. (Carmichael Lynch didn’t answer questions as to whether young people’s concerns about climate change were part of their conversations with Conoco.)
The result of the analysis is a campaign called Choose Go, which, the case study describes, is “a social-first campaign that changed the rules of social engagement by understanding the audience’s perceptions of brands. Instead of forcing advertising-like objects on them, we built content around their interests.” AdWeek wrote a glowing review of the “glug glug” lofi mix video, and per the case study, the campaign generated millions of impressions on social media.
This strategy of increasing brand loyalty while not focusing on the actual product was pioneered by another oil giant. In the 1970s, Exxon sponsored several episodes of the PBS program Masterpiece Theater in one of the earliest examples of a company associating itself with a cultural touchstone to boost brand loyalty. This strategy can be really successful—which isn’t great news for the climate.
“This is why ad agencies are so dangerous: they can take a boring fossil fuel company and turn them into your hip best friend,” Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, which runs a campaign called Clean Creatives dedicated to pressuring ad and PR agencies to quit working with fossil fuel companies, said over Twitter DM. “Who cares if ConocoPhillips is blocking climate legislation if they’re sharing dope playlists and funny animations, right? I’m sure the team at CarmichaelLynch had a good time working this account, but creativity has consequences. Shilling for Big Oil is an act of climate denial no matter how cool it looks.”
There could be limits to how far this don’t-focus-on-the-oil-and-look-how-funny-we-are approach can go with other oil and gas companies. I’m not sure if high-profile brands like Exxon will be able to appeal to Gen Z since its name is associated with lying about climate change for decades. Other Big Oil companies like Chevron, BP, and Shell have had a more intense and unforgiving spotlight put on them for their role in delaying climate action.
One of the reasons this particular strategy seems to have been able to succeed here is that Conoco hasn’t come under the same scrutiny, perhaps because it only sells gas. But it does have a dirty history: ConocoPhillips, its predecessor company, produces about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. In 2012, ConocoPhillips, then the third-biggest oil company in the country, split its oil-and-gas producing arm from its oil-and-gas selling arm; the resulting companies are ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66, which owns Conoco.
Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips have done quite well since then: They are currently the fifth-largest and third-largest oil and gas companies by market share in the U.S. And at the end of the day, selling all that oil is what these kinds of campaigns are for.
“Conoco sold 40 million more gallons of gas in the campaign’s first five months compared to the year prior,” Carmichael Lynch concludes their case study proudly. Let’s hope none of the other oil companies figure out how to replicate this success.