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Why burnishing shipping’s brand has never been so important

Posted 10.07.2023
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As BLUE celebrates its 15th anniversary, co-founder Alisdair Pettigrew shares his thoughts on shipping’s evolving relationship with brand and reputation

Fifteen years ago, it was not the ideal time to start a business. Lehman Brothers went bankrupt following the subprime mortgage crisis, and the world spiralled into recession. In shipping, freight rates in key container trades slumped to near all-time lows, while energy prices plummeted, triggering a contraction in credit. 

To be honest, as new entrepreneurs launching a PR agency for shipping, it felt like we were having all the luck of Wile E Coyote chasing the Roadrunner.

It was an era where the term brand was exclusively used by consumer-facing companies, not banded around in the shipping industry. 

I remember my co-founder Nick Blythe and I driving to deepest Kent three times in a cold December in 2008 to try and convince a company — which shall remain nameless — that building a brand and reputation would help them build closer relationships with the most important people to their business, as well as increase the equity and tangible value of their 100-odd people organisation.

“We can pay you for half a day a month if you can get us in Bunkersnews, and help us sponsor some coffee mugs,” was the reply (a great and sadly missed title I may add!).

Thankfully, it’s fair to say that the shipping industry’s relationship with brands and how it communicates has come a long way since then. However, as shipping comes increasingly under the external spotlight of scrutiny, driven by the climate change challenge, and the industry grows more commoditised, there is still a long way to go for organisations and the industry to fully understand the importance of brand and reputation and deploy communications in the most effective and impactful way.

We have a belief that we convey to clients that if brand is how you see yourself then reputation is how people view you when you are not in the room; utopia is when they are aligned. A brand is not a logo, it is your DNA, the essence and values, which define and bind you; your core being and purpose. Indeed, according to McKinsey & Co, a positive brand and reputation have a value exceeding 25% of a company’s market capitalisation in the technology, transportation or logistics industries. Many organisations working across the maritime market are waking up to this.

In terms of how organisations within the shipping industry communicate, much of the change we have seen has been for the better, identifying its strategic and commercial importance. However, much has still been initially triggered by some form of crisis; think the Erika oil spill — a 25-year-old single-hull oil tanker that in 1999 broke in two off France, polluting almost 400 km of French coastline — or the exposure of the carbon emissions of large shipping companies equalling those of a small country, piracy, and, more recently the 20,388-teu Ever Given (built 2018) disaster, all of which have dominated global news.

These milestones and others have forced organisations across the industry to develop and employ more strategic and proactive communications programmes, driven by an ethos of transparency and founded on truth, which is recognised as being good for business in every sense; better relationships with customers and increased sales, an engaged and eager workforce, willing and active investors, and a more sustainable and responsible industry.

BLUE’s growth over the past 15 years from a pure-play PR company into a fully integrated agency with a team of more than 45 and clients spanning 20 countries is perhaps some evidence of the change we are seeing in how shipping views brand, the importance of reputation and how it communicates.

Unprecedented scrutiny

Shipping may be an industry that is sometimes perceived as aloof, conservative and tough to manage. However, I can say — truthfully — that we have a number of formerly “reluctant clients” (some that have been with us from the very beginning) that see the benefits of investing in brand and communications.

The significance of the climate crisis represents the one area where shipping has come under unprecedented scrutiny from previously latent stakeholders; governments and regulators, financiers, shippers, cargo owners, academics, non-governmental organizations and mainstream journalists to name a few. 

Their gaze and that of the wider world, if nothing else, should provide the catalyst for investment in building a positive brand and reputation, and communicating from a basis of truth.


Alisdair Pettigrew

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