For Want of a Switch

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The Gulf Coast oil disaster is has already achieved horrors of epic dimensions — 11 people are dead and a slick the size of Puerto Rico threatens to devastate ecologies and economies from Louisiana to Florida — so talking about marketing right now seems somewhat irrelevant. But BP’s branding plays a central role in both the run-up and aftermath of the crisis, so there’s much to be learned from it.

10 Years of “Beyond Petroleum”

In 2000, British Petroleum changed its name to "“BP" and launched a major rebranding campaign based on an environmentally-friendly position. Its logo became a stylized helios symbol rendered in friendly shades of green while many millions were spent cleaning up its filling stations. It debuted an ad campaign featuring consumers talking about the need for alternative energy that ended with the tagline "beyond petroleum."

The branding looked as beautiful as it was brilliantly executed. The only problem was that it was a complete and utter lie.

There was no corporate commitment to transforming the company "beyond petroleum." It made no significant investment in alternative fuels research beyond the symbolic gesture here or there. In fact, some would suggest that the company’s purchase of a leading (though small) solar energy firm was intended to slow its progress. This article published in late 2000 suggested that BP spent more on its logo than on renewable energy. By 2008 it claimed to have spent "billions of dollars" on renewables without qualifying how much of those funds were reclassified operational expenses (its revenues were 341 billion that year alone, by way of context), and it announced that it was exploring ways to eek profits from it while increasing its oil production by 15% over the next few years.

BP suffered a short list of environmental disasters during the decade, most notably an explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 people and two serious oil spills in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about being in the oil business; it’s legal, takes significant skill and commitment, provides a service that is vitally important to the world economy, and throws off sickeningly huge profits…and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. No oil company has the responsibility or interest in inventing a future wherein there are no oil companies, and companies like ExxonMobil regularly defeat shareholder motions to do so.

BP’s claims to the contrary evidenced a conscious willingness to lie, whether to its consumers and/or to itself. It could have chosen to spend its money telling the world what it was and did, not what it thought consumers wanted to believe. "Beyond petroleum" was a creative idea for which smart marketers went off to find proof, not a corporate behavior that deserved a glossy label. BP has spent the last 10 years claiming one thing while doing another.

Doing so is common, standard branding nonsense: consumers know, however unconsciously or inevitably, that ordering a particular brand of beer or using a cologne named after a starlet won’t spontaneously generate social acceptance. Chewing gum doesn’t make you happy. Razor blades can’t make you look younger. Those empty beaches in vacation ads are in reality filled with pale people. Marketers tolerate these disconnects because they think they can get away with it and, as the saying goes, it’s easier to sell the sizzle instead of the steak (or ground chuck, as the case may be). 

BP’s problem is that the gap between truth and fiction is so huge, and the stakes are so high when that distance is revealed.

The company’s CEO illustrated this disconnect recently when he said that BP hadn’t done more to prepare for such a disaster because it "seemed inconceivable," after reports surfaced that it had forgone a $500,000 "acoustic trigger" shut-off device required of offshore oil wells operating near Norway and Brazil. Turns out that going "beyond petroleum" didn’t warrant another half-million expense.

So where is all the brand equity BP has spent a decade propagating into the cosmos? Gone, I say; worse, it only accentuates the dishonesty at the core of its business. It is going to be harder from now on for analysts to accurately judge its performance, just as media will need to more closely question its statements. Is it possible that those beautiful austere filling stations will serve as visible reminders of disasters and dishonesty to consumers as they drive past?

Think how differently we’d all react if BP had been telling us the truth all along. Instead, as one dim bulber put it, the brand is "beyond pathetic."

A Company Trying to Hide

It’s weird to watch a gigantic company try to become invisible but that’s exactly what BP has been doing since the oil rig first exploded. There’s a nice feature on its web site about the crisis but it’s oddly devoid of any real substance or passion; its primary response seems to be having set up offices to disseminate information as well as taking all "possible" steps to contain the spread of the oil spill (a nicely qualified statement from the CEO, from whom we heard over the weekend but has otherwise been all but silent). 

In other words, the company’s PR team is rolling out a crisis plan it had at the ready. Nevermind that it’s kinda odd that the inconceivable disaster wasn’t so inconceivable to them; BP’s team is dotting the i’s and crossing its t’s so it can claim to have done everything its communications playbook required. There might even be a golden trumpet or silk blindfold industry award in it. 

The other thing BP seems to be aggressively doing is attempting to cut settlement deals with fishermen along the coast (at least in Alabama). So the lawyers are following their crisis plan, too.

When viewed from the perspective of a decade’s worth of branding hype, BP’s response to the crisis stops just short of inane. It’s not leadership, and certainly an unrealized opportunity to truly go "beyond petroleum." Imagine a different response to the disaster:

  • Visible leadership: BP’s CEO is everywhere in the media evidencing not just his concern but describing the herculean efforts the company is taking to respond. People, resources, whatever. His lieutenants are on local media proactively describing their work so the company is seen as leading vs. guardedly responding. No consumer shock is greater than the company’s.
  • Victim support: The company announces a fund for the workers killed in the initial blast, as well as reviews of safety status and precautions at all of its facilities worldwide. This drives a lot of additional exposure for its CEO and prompts other big oil companies to initiate similar reviews, leading to further awareness of BP as a leader. It will subsequently announce new safety polices it puts in place as a result of the review.
  • Consumer involvement: A multi-faceted program is unveiled at its filling stations, including daily updates on efforts to resolve the crisis (posted as informally as clipboards on gas pumps) and a fundraising program to let customers donate to help clean up the mess (or to research new safety measures). These real-world efforts earn significant credibility with its friends and critics alike.
  • Social media outreach: BP takes the unprecedented step to connect a large community of its engineers directly to the conversations going on via Twitter, Facebook, and the other popular social media platforms. It also moderates its own groups (for credit card holders, for instance) and addresses the substantive issues of exploration and production (risk, reward).
  • Industry advocacy: The company uses the credibility of its difficulties during the crisis to call for more industry action on safety. Such efforts could include proposing voluntary guidelines for its association(s) and/or proposing partnerships with government regulators. Environmental groups could also be involved, presuming BP can keep the conversations focused on substantive and real measures and not symbolic gestures.

Unfortunately, we’ll see none of the above. 

The story will rage on for weeks — it’s hard to ignore a slick about to coat a fifth of the coastline of the US — but BP will continue to play the role of the reticent participant. At some point I’m sure we’ll get the glossy ads and videos about its concern and response to the disaster, probably created by the same genius marketers who gave it the "beyond petroleum" campaigns. The branding will feel genuine, only it won’t be. There’ll be no real change to communicate, no reality addressed other than the unreality of its branding presumptions and fears of penalties and lawsuits.

The best argument in defense of BP’s brand strategy is that, ultimately, consumers won’t care…that a year from now nobody will connect the disaster to the filling stations in front of them as their fuel gauges read empty. Perhaps they (i.e. we) are that dumb, but if we truly cannot connect the dots then why did BP spend all that money on branding in the first place? 

It would have been far cheaper and far more honest if it had chosen to tell us absolutely nothing at all, and instead spent chump change on that switch and avoided this entire mess.

(photo BP British Petroleum Co., Ltd., 1922; public domain)

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