• Instead of resisting change, many oil companies are turning into active electromobility players by getting into EV charging, not least because they want to refashion themselves as sustainability heroes.
  • Our media analysis found that in order to position themselves as leaders in EV charging and hence in sustainable transport, oil companies should emphasise their expertise in energy and partner with EV manufacturers to gain credibility.
  • We also found that oil giants should address the main challenges of EV charging while demonstrating that their investments are more than just a matter of business survival.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

Oil companies have been on an EV charging spending spree. They’re getting into public charging in a big way, and it goes far beyond just installing chargers at their gas stations.

Oil majors including BP and Shell have been buying up companies at all points along the charging value chain, from equipment manufacturers to network operators to makers of “solutions”—those nebulous mixes of product and service that make the whole system work better.

It’s all part of oil companies’ broader effort to burnish their image, as the world has already accepted that the “oil age” will come to an inevitable end and that the future low-carbon economy will compel the oil giants of today to transform into the energy giants of tomorrow.

However, an EV charging spending spree won’t be enough – Big Oil needs a new PR and comms approach, not least because every attempt for cleaning up its image as one of the planet’s major polluters is usually being labelled as greenwashing. To see how this can happen, we analysed 1,007 English-language articles about EV charging published in top-tier news outlets during the last two years. Here are our main findings:

1. Emphasise your expertise in energy

The media conversation around EV charging is largely dominated by the Automotive sector:

Some industry outlets noted that over the past several years, with relatively low EV adoption rates in the US, car companies have been so focused on developing powertrains and cars that they’ve largely pushed the onus of charging elsewhere. They’ve depended on third-party charging firms like ChargePoint, EVgo, and Electrify America to provide EV buyers with public plugs.

The exception, of course, is Tesla, which built its own Supercharger fast network across the country, quickly marking one of the automaker’s most differentiating features. Only recently have the other auto companies seemingly considered Tesla‘s advantage and recognised how crucial it is that they get more hands-on in the charging game.

That’s how the EV charging conversation became dominated by car companies apart from Tesla. GM, for example, is installing 40,000 of its “Ultium Charge 360” chargers across the US and Canada. Ford, too, is developing a 75,000-charger Blue Oval network. Mercedes is launching its own version of a network that will place more than 10,000 chargers across North America, Europe, China, and other key markets in the coming years.

However, Big Oil companies have extensive experience in energy production and distribution which they still haven’t used to gain a larger share in the debate. They can leverage this expertise to position themselves as natural leaders in the transition to EVs. They can showcase their investments in clean energy technologies, such as renewable energy and energy storage, as evidence of their commitment to the environment and the future of mobility. They should emphasise their strengths and differentiators in the EV charging market by engaging in public dialogue and thought leadership on the future of mobility and the role of EVs in a sustainable energy system.

2. Address the main challenges of EV charging

A number of mass media outlets have highlighted that the culture surrounding EV charging stations differs significantly from that of gas stations, with the prevalence of at-home charging raising questions about equity and access, and a divide between urban and rural areas.

Such considerations made Infrastructure the main topic in the media debate around EV charging:

The Infrastructure topic centres around whether there is enough EV charging infrastructure to support the growing number of EVs on the road. Some argued that there is a lack of charging stations, especially in rural areas, and that more investment is needed to build out the charging network.

Regardless, the main consideration for most journalists and industry analysts is that there are significant rural parts of where one could drive for some time without seeing an EV-charging station, while filling stations punctuate the landscape at regular intervals. In fact, addressing the problem of rural locations made BP and Shell the most influential oil companies in the debate in terms of media impact.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

BP got into this debate by working with American charging technology company Freewire, whose Boost Charger system can raise three-phase power to 120kW using an extra battery, effectively providing a fast-charging service that can be installed anywhere in a couple of hours. Meanwhile, Shell has announced that it’s trialling a new system that uses a 360kWh on-site battery to provide fast charging.

Sustainability is another topic that oil companies need to consider. The debate centres on the environmental impact of EV charging, including the source of the electricity used to charge EVs and the carbon footprint of the charging infrastructure. Some journalists argued that EV charging is only sustainable if the electricity is generated from renewable sources, while others said that EV charging can be sustainable if the charging infrastructure is powered by a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources.

3. Show that it’s more than a matter of business survival…

Many voices in the mass media put question why Big Oil is going big on charging. The optimists see the obvious motivation—these companies want to do the right thing for the planet and for themselves, transitioning to new and cleaner technology.

However, there are a fair share of sceptics who suspect that oil companies’ real aim is to cripple that new technology, if not by shutting down innovators in the field, then by controlling the market, and making sure that public EV charging is at least as expensive as pumping gas, and less convenient.

According to many media reports, this is a “do or die” moment for many oil companies, as oil use will fall off a cliff in the coming decades and a nationwide EV charger network is not something they can set up overnight. This is an acknowledgement of the long-term realities that face their businesses, and the only way they can maintain their profits and status is to make those investments today.

Oil giants need to address this scepticism by showing that they’re trying not to save their business but the environment. They should communicate how their investments in EV charging infrastructure and clean energy technologies are aligned with their sustainability goals. They can highlight the role of EV charging in the transition to a low-carbon economy and the achievement of global climate targets. By doing so, they can demonstrate that their investments in EV charging are part of a broader environmental agenda and not just a business strategy.

4. …but don’t overemphasise green messaging

All of this environmental talk isn’t to wash up the legacy of oil companies. There are already too many media reports on how their wanton drilling has wrecked local environments around the world. The public is already way too familiar with how Big Oil’s own scientists have known for decades that their product was killing the planet and not only refused to really do anything about it, but actively fought against efforts to minimise their damage.

One of the biggest EV charging networks in the USA was even created because of oil shenanigans: Electrify America is a Volkswagen subsidiary that was created as part of their $2 billion settlement with US regulators in 2016 over their violations of the Clean Air Act for cheating in diesel emissions testing. 

So, in order to avoid greenwashing allegations, it’s important for oil companies to not overemphasise their green messaging. This is especially pertinent since a recent viral analysis from London-based energy and climate think-tank InfluenceMap found that the amount of climate-positive messaging used by five major oil and gas companies – BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies – is inconsistent with their spending on low-carbon activities.

Oil companies could tap into other consumer motivations for EV adoption. Many electric car owners are not primarily motivated by the environment. They need to feel the benefit on a personal level, whether it’s saving money, looking good to others, or having a more pleasurable experience.

5. Partner with EV manufacturers to gain credibility

Big oil companies can form partnerships with EV manufacturers to collaborate on research and development, share best practices, and offer incentives and discounts to customers who switch to EVs.

But there’s something more – partnerships with EVs can result in a significant reputation boost, since EV manufacturers are among the companies with the best images when it comes to sustainability. For instance, Brand Finance’s recent research has revealed the important role of sustainability perception in driving choice amongst consumers in the sector.

This is likely down to the widely discussed negative impact that cars and the auto industry have traditionally had on the environment being at the forefront of consumers’ minds when making purchases. This is particularly the case amongst consumers making discretionary purchases in the luxury auto market, and who are less restrained by budget.

For example, Porsche and Mercedes have both incorporated sustainability into the core of their brand strategies. Mercedes has also taken one step further towards an all-electric future through its development of next-generation high-performance battery cells and modules, and the announcement of the expansion of its partnership with Chinese battery producer CATL.

A good example of a partnership between an oil giant and a luxury EV car maker that gained a lot of media traction was Shell‘s joint venture with Mercedes. Shell collaborated with Mercedes to offer EV customers access to the Shell Recharge network that will operate 30,000 plug-in points in Europe, North America, and China by 2025 – including 10,000 high-powered units. Both companies want to develop plug-and-charge technology and provide chargers in work and home environments, all of which fit into Shell’s wider energy portfolio.

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