How can the energy industry improve its image? Sell iPads

Are we having fun yet? (AP)

Energy Advocates, an Oklahoma-based group that aims to promote various forms of energy, including oil, natural gas, coal and renewables, is planning a nationwide tour next year to boost the energy industry’s image and increase public understanding.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently when I speak to industry groups pertains to the industry’s image and what can be done about it.

I usually find myself talking about how the industry has done a poor job of handling its most visible disasters, and how because much of the energy industry has little direct contact with the public, the only time it finds itself in the spotlight is when something goes terribly wrong.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a retired executive for a major oil company, and he made a more direct point: people hate oil companies because they hate buying gas. We see gas as a necessity. Shopping for clothes — for some people at least — is enjoyable, even recreational. I sort of like to browse in hardware stores, book shops and electronics outlets. But gas? We see those prices scrolling by at the pump and its a reminder that we’re pouring money in the tank. Gas is a staple, something we need so we can do the other things we want or have to do.

Despite the marketing campaigns, all gasoline is basically the same, so there’s little brand loyalty. Drivers typically look for the cheapest price.

We dislike buying gasoline in much the same way we dislike buying electricity or water or even cable. We want it, we pay for it, and we grumble about it. And when prices go up, consumers tend to feel they’re being gouged.

That fundamental dislike erupts into outright animosity when oil companies then unleash something like BP’s Gulf oil spill last year. The point, the retired executive said, is that the industry will never get the benefit of the doubt from the general public.

While I think Energy Advocates’ idea for a national tour to promote better understanding of energy issues is a great idea — because the public’s understanding of energy is generally poor — improving the industry’s image may not happen until it begins selling something the public actually enjoys buying.