Between stricter environmental rules, local demonstrations and a souring perception of coal-generated electricity, the world’s largest private coal company hasn’t found itself in the most flattering light lately.
Peabody Energy hopes a new marketing campaign will remind its hometown that coal really isn’t so bad.
The St. Louis-based company this week launched a local marketing effort to drive home the fact that coal generates about three-fourths of the region’s electricity, and it’s one of the reasons Missouri has among the cheapest power in the country. It also “celebrates” emission-control improvements, which have led to clearer skies in a once hazy city known for its pollution.
New billboards went up this week on several of the metro area’s highways featuring children playing under clear-blue skies. They declare: “Today’s Coal. Blue Skies. Life Empowered.”
One features a little girl flying a kite beneath the Gateway Arch, and another shows a boy playing baseball under stadium lights. Radio ads, too, began airing this week.
“You forget how clean the air has become, and yet we use far more coal than we did in the late 1960s,” said Vic Svec, Peabody’s senior vice president of global investor and corporate relations. “… It’s really highlighting St. Louis’ role for using more coal more cleanly.”
The campaign comes as domestic coal use is under pressure from new and pending environmental rules while a huge increase in domestic natural gas production has made that fuel into a major competitor to coal for power production.
Concern about climate change and support for nonfossil fuels have also increased among the general public. A February 2013 Pew Research Center poll found 62 percent of people supported stricter emissions limits on power plants in order to address climate change.
Even locally, a small group of demonstrators have kept a steady presence on Washington University’s campus, protesting Peabody CEO Greg Boyce’s membership on the university’s board of trustees. And on Thursday, a small group of people stole the show by staging a protest outside of Peabody’s annual shareholder meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton. About 12 were arrested after peacefully trying to enter the building.
The protests here are far from the only ones. Demonstrations have popped up on college campuses across the country, urging universities to take their endowments out of fossil-fuel companies. The handful that have done so have been small, but this week, Stanford University announced it would stop using its $18.7 billion endowment to invest in coal companies.
The public’s perception of coal and the future policies those views shape hold big repercussions for the region’s economy. Peabody’s headquarters here employs more than 500 people, and it is one of the largest companies still based in the city of St. Louis.
The region also hosts Arch Coal and Patriot Coal, both based in Creve Coeur. Privately held Foresight Energy also calls the region home. In nearby Southern Illinois, huge deposits of coal lie beneath the ground and are attracting more interest from miners.
The ad campaign strikes James Fisher, an associate professor of marketing at St. Louis University, as more focused on the broader industry than just Peabody Energy.
“Coal has a lot of ramifications for environment, for employment for our energy future and just a host of public policy and governmental regulation issues,” he said. “So they just don’t just want to let the chips fall where they may. They want to make sure their voice is heard.”
The local marketing push is part of a global campaign launched in February dubbed “Advanced Energy for Life.” The local campaign, however, is using more media types to get its message out and is slightly more comprehensive than some targeted ads in other areas of the country.
“We are headquartered in St. Louis and we felt compelled to share the key campaign messages that we are sharing globally,” said Cabanne Howard, Peabody’s senior manager of advocacy communication. “Ideally, if things are met with receptivity, this could be something we roll out in other cities as well.”
Protesters at Peabody’s shareholder meeting on Thursday took the new campaign as a sign their demonstrations are working.
“The ad campaign means they’re hearing our concerns, they’re feeling the heat and being forced to respond,” said Molly Gott, an organizer with the Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, which has frequently targeted Peabody in demonstrations recently.
Fisher said he doubts the campaign is related to local demonstrations because it was already underway, but he said the local protests are symptomatic of a broader national mood.
Large corporations that don’t sell to the general public frequently run “goodwill” marketing campaigns, said Haim Mano, associate professor of marketing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The fact that they spend money on them is as good a sign as any that they’re effective.
“I don’t think anyone has studied this from an academic perspective,” Mano said. “However, the fact that the major corporations are doing this is an indication that it’s working.”
Editor's note: Haim Mano is an associate professor of marketing at UMSL. His title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.