An Extraordinary Pivot

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1893

Pivot is one of the go-to business buzz words grasped by harassed Captains of Industry and their PRs to show strategic chops and to justify a sudden directional change brought about by the usual marketplace mayhem. Pivoting is happening right now in those giant energy companies who have to deal with the medium-term imperative of responding to the impact of fossil fuels on climate change, and the short-term impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That war has now resulted in Shell and BP making the inevitable but still breathtakingly bold decision to exit from their long-established joint ventures with Russia. Bold moves, however, are nothing new in the oil business. Indeed, Shell’s establishment in the energy industry came after what we would know today as a most extraordinary personal and business pivot. 

The story of Shell starts in 1834 in East Smithfield in London with Marcus Samuel’s trading emporium. This shop sold a variety of articles he had imported from Japan and China, items like rice, silk and porcelain. He also imported exotic seashells, which sold very well. Victorians loved keepsake boxes which they would decorate with shells. Samuel sold many of these to well-heeled customers and, following such success, decided to call his business The Shell Shop.

But it was Marcus’ son, also called Marcus, who fundamentally changed the direction of his dad’s curio business and laid the foundations for what would become one of the great corporations that defined the 20th century, and which today continues to pay our pensions. 

Twenty-five years after M. Samuel & Co was established in London, Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania, and soon afterwards, various products began to be refined from crude oil. One of these hydro-carbon fractions was kerosene, which soon became one of the most valuable commodities in the world because it brought heat and illumination to the dark, cold, but increasingly populous cities of the United States and Europe. John D Rockefeller had already become one of the world’s richest men by demonstrating how with focused ruthlessness, you could make millions from finding, extracting and transporting oil to where people needed it. By the mid-1880s, the United States dominated the world market for kerosene. But it didn’t take the Europeans long to attempt to get a share of the highly lucrative new market of liquid gold. The discovery of oil in Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea provided the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs to partner with the Tsarist Russia regime.

Marcus Samuel Junior

Enter Marcus Samuel junior, who proved to be an imaginative and daring oilman. Building on his family’s network of connections in Asia and following a recce to the Caucasus, Marcus Samuel junior added Baku kerosene to the coal, silk and rice in which the family business dealt. Convinced that the oil business was an excellent long-term investment, even if success might increase the risk of nationalization by his Russian partners, Samuel started to build an integrated transport system to get the oil from the Caspian Sea to the point of use in Asia. This included commissioning a new type of tanker that could transport both oil and foodstuffs like rice.

But then came the year of the extraordinary pivot, both in the business and for Marcus personally. In 1893, just as Marcus was dealing with a diagnosis of cancer that he was informed was terminal, he utterly committed the family business to the oil trade and, in great secrecy, commissioned a further ten bulk tankers to transport his oil. With deference to his father, these ships were all named after seashells such as Helix and Murex. In 1897, having survived cancer and with the business thriving, Marcus Samuel Junior renamed the company Shell Transport and Trading and, in 1904, adopted the Scallop* (the Genus Pecten) as a corporate device. Soon, the familiar orange and red Pecten logo would become one of the world’s most valuable and recognizable brand icons.

* The Scallop has had a long connection with the creative arts of corporate identity. One of the most popular heraldic charges, the scallop, was the badge associated with St. James of Compostela and has long been the symbol of all those that make a pilgrimage. It features in many coats of arms, including Winston Churchill’s. The scallop also features as the star prop in a film (The Realm) on the importance of branding commissioned by Shell, which featured Robert Hardy playing seven different characters, all members of the board.

Scallops in English Arms in the Thirteenth Century
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Over the years, Shell has launched many products but one extension that the Brand Historian fondly remembers from when he was a member of Group Training’s faculty was the Shell Full English Breakfast, served every day at the Lensbury Club in Teddington. I am sure Marcus Samuel would approve.

Pivotal Music from 1893: 

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor – From the New World – Anton Dvorak

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