Brand Say, Brand Do, Ships Done

We look at the issues of transparency, honesty and the reasons why obvious steps are not always so easy in shipping. Is it time we shifted from expectation, through hope, to demanding more?

Every now and again there is some piece of business jargon that at once manages to send a shudder down your back, the hairs on your arms tingle, and maybe even a little sick in your mouth. There is “circling back”, “touching base”, “running up the flag pole”, “throwing at the wall and seeing what sticks”, “new normal”, and of course, “low hanging fruit”.

They all have the ability to capture a certain something — but they tend to say more about the person uttering them than the actual corporate change they will bring about. They are in short, what we can term bollocks.

But they are out there, they are used, they are the language of terrible board rooms and terribly bored executives. So we have to learn to understand what people actually mean when they throw their corporate speak into conversation.

BRAND DO…

There are more emerging all the time. The latest I have heard creeping into professional parlance is an odd sounding one…I have been hearing “brand do” mentioned on far too many occasions.

I know, I know, it sounds bad…but let me explain, as the theory isn’t as bad as the phrase sounds. Dr Myriam Sidibe coined the phrase in her book, “Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose”. She says brands need to not just communicate their opposition to social problems, they need to actually address them meaningfully. The changes can’t be skin deep: Brands must dig very deep and uproot whatever doesn’t align with the values they are communicating.

There have been many fine sounding pronouncements by corporations — brands saying a lot, but seemingly all to often failing to deliver on the promises. So the pressure is building to make brands do what they say. Holding their corporate feet to the fire. Words mean nothing, actions are all. So it’s about moving companies from merely saying what they will do, to doing it.

SAY WHAT YOU DO. DO WHAT YOU SAY…PROVE IT

In the maritime world we have long had a mantra of say what you will do and show that you have done it. So this has not been issue for ships so much, but as the decarbonisation pressures intensify, then maybe it is time to reflect and ensure that it is about brand done.

We have to start showing the world what is going on, what is being done, what the near future looks like and the sheer weight of investment, resources and energy which has done so much to take us onwards.

Outside of the maritime industry, there is still a perception that shipping is not doing enough, not acting quickly, and is just waiting for rules rather than pushing forward with the changes needed to clean and decarbonise. Now, there may be some truth in that — but there has to be recognition too of the fact that taking the wrong green turn could be tantamount to corporate suicide.

Buy the wrong kit, back the wrong fuel — and all we will see is shipping companies going to the wall faster than WW1 deserters. So we do need to manage this better. Indeed, perhaps it should be a case of governments do…but they do not know what technology to back, or which fuel will win out. They are agnostic, which means that all the risk is taken on by the industry.

Which in turn means we reach a stalemate, but one which also has the jeopardy of a clock ticking. The question is therefore how can we do what we need to do, and get ourselves moving the dial to low carbon and then no carbon?

END THE HURRY UP AND WAIT

Unfortunately we often find ourselves in a position where shipping does things which are tantamount to shooting its own industry in the foot. I’m thinking of the biggest crime of all when it comes to burning fuel, and that is the “hurry up and wait” school of sailing.

From time immemorial, ships have been instructed to make best speed, or to sail fast then wait. Which was fine when it was the wind billowing in the sails, but since the move to heavy oil the focus being on get them where they are meant to be, and then worry about whether they can load or discharge takes on a whole new dimension. What we see now is a disconnect between all parts and parties, with risks, rewards and even the rationale all skewed.

We see that the rule of split incentives remains at play, and doesn’t help anyone. This is when those responsible for paying energy bills (depending on the exact nature of the charterparty, it is the charterer) is not the same entity as those making the capital investment decisions (the shipowner).

In these circumstances, the owner may not be inclined to make the necessary upgrades to the ship when the benefits associated with the resulting energy savings accrue to the charterer. The spend is disincentivised, because of the perceived benefit falling to the one who isn’t putting their hand deep enough into their pocket.

There is a lack of agency too — in which the charterers lack the will or power to fully realise their roles. This is changing, and increasingly we are seeing powerful consortia emerge, as the biggest names in global trade flex their muscles.

Perhaps more now than ever, those who use ships are under scrutiny, and with pressure on the likes of Walmart, Target, Nike, H&M, Unilever, etc, etc to be more accountable and transparent with their transportation — then the sloping shoulders of merely burning more because the ships weren’t as fuel efficient as they could be, or because they want to get their stock as close to market as fast as possible no longer flies. Which is why so many shipping companies are turning to maritime informatics, and why so many customers are pleased that they are.

SHARING RISKS AND REWARDS

So, back to the “Brand do” mantra…shipping, whether users or owners, can no longer do what has been done before. There should be no incentives to burn fuel, to sail too fast, to arrive too early. There must be sense and sensitivity. We need to understand the mechanisms of past mistakes, to learn and change the way we earn.

We need to ensure that shipowners are supported in making the right spends and investments to develop ships which are cleaner, smarter and greener. We need charterers to know that they need to buy space and access more wisely.

The world is watching — and the brand do can evolve into shipping does the right things. For people, the planet and for trade. Global prosperity still rests on shipping has it has for Millenia. Now though, there is so much more to deliver on too. Promises!

*for a really interesting paper, “The impact of split incentives on energy efficiency technology investments in maritime transport” see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421520304481#:~:text=In%20maritime%20transport%2C%20split%20incentives,existing%20between%20shipowners%20and%20charterers.

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Captain Stu

Making maritime informatics all it can and should be…asking questions, and finding answers.