BP: Disingenuously Branding "Beyond Petroleum" Backfires Big Time

The oil spewing from the destroyed drilling-rig off the coast of Louisiana is devastating the environment; it also damages one of the decade’s most prominent brands.

No matter that the oil rig in question is actually owned and operated by Transocean, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor. No matter that nine of the eleven victims are Transocean employees. The Obama administration today, followed by most of the media, have branded this disaster the “BP Oil Spill”.

Like Exxon before it, the BP brand is going to be tarred as an environmental demon. Frankly BP has been asking for it.

BP: A Disingenuous Brand

Oil is a dirty business, despite the very best efforts of everyone involved. It isn’t a matter of if, but when an oil company will cause environmental damage.  BP put itself in certain jeopardy when it positioned its brand around “energy that doesn’t damage the environment”.  The green sun logo, the flower-like “helios” mark , was meant to redefine the company as “beyond” dirty old petroleum, embracing cool, smart clean energy. The fact remains that BP is a dirty old petroleum company, with all of the risks that dirty old petroleum companies face.  BP loudly claiming  environmental superiority was disingenuous from the start.  It was only a matter of time before the truth came out to bite BP.  No wonder consumers are so cynical.  BP made a brand promise it could never keep. No amount of  BP cool advertising about wind farms or solar panels can fix the brand now.

BP Progressive, Responsive and Innovative?  NOT

One more thing: BP’s web site immodestly claims that it is “progressive, responsive and innovative”. Yet BP’s response to the oil spill has been nothing like that.  They have been totally old school—talking heads and careful press releases vetted by lawyers.   The company has a Twitter account, but—hard to believe here in 2010—had nothing to Tweet about on April 20th, the day of the disaster. It took seven days before the first robotic corporate Tweet appeared. That is not progressive, not responsive, and not innovative.

15 comments to BP: Disingenuously Branding

  • Excellent material and great perspective. This points up the clear tendency of many enterprises to get creative about the image and the attendant rhetoric but to conveniently forget that, sometime in the future, they’ll have to put our money where their mouth has been.

    I’m interested in watching this entire game play out. For instance, the government has responded more rapidly to this event than they did to Katrina when so many American lives were more directly threatened. How incredibly progressive and unique is that? Do you suppose the rapid response has anything to do with using this heaven-sent disaster to draw all eyes away from the latest round of D.C. debacles? Downright innovative, if you ask me.

    Even more interesting is the potential for “who gets to pay” for the cleanup. Anyone want to guess how much the price of gasoline is going to jump at the pump? And, while we’re guessing, anyone want to place a figure on this coming year’s leap forward in profits for BP and their industry friends? Now, that would constitute an innovative response to a progressively expanding opportunity.

    Personally I think that BP is, indeed, conforming well to its brand promise of progressive, responsive, and innovative. They are doing quite well in progressively stripping natural resources from the environment. They are seriously responsive to any potential excuse for boosting the price of their products. And, finally, these are some seriously innovative folks – finding new ways to convert oil to cash, regardless of the risks involved.

    And, last but not least, how much would it have cost to place a remotely activated termination valve at the very base of a new well head? Doing so would be to progressively lead the field in safety, proactively respond to environmental risk, and act in an innovative manner to do something that has never been done before to ensure environmental protection.

    What a unique conceptual series…

  • touche! Now is the time that the company lives the brand… or not. this is the same trial by fire (NPI) that

    I don’t know BP well enough (NPI) to wager a bet on whether or not they will… but I sincerely hope they live UP to their brand rather than drag the brand DOWN to typical CYA oil company behavior.

    THe difference reflects the role of marketing in the company… is it a covering Band-Aid, or a banner under which it strives to operate?

    (No Pun Intended)

  • Huong

    Yes, you’re so right about dirty oil companies. Will you be ready to give up your cars? Is it you, in the end, who have encouraged the growth of companies such as BP by holding on to using oil and gasoline?

    I don’t mean BP is clean and not guilty, but please put it correctly this way: we all are partially responsible in the oil rig disaster.

    Talking is easier and doing. Will you be ready to switch to clean energy, which is much more costly? I’m not sure, as you are crticizing a possible oil price increase.

    This is a typical case where it is not about marketing or branding but honesty and responsibility…

  • Dear Huong: Thank you for your comment. This post is not about who is responsible for the disaster, but who made poor brand choices. Petrochemicals are a necessary part of everyone’s lives and oil companies fill a need driven by every person (even the most strict environmentalists use petrochemicals). Extracting and processing oil is a dirty and extremely dangerous business. The oil companies don’t want disasters. They destroy equipment, slow production, and damage profitability. Worse, employees can lose their lives. Oil companies are not evil–they are producing a desperately needed commodity the best they can. But they are not perfect. The problem is that BP tried to make everyone think they were. They built their brand on the fallacy that somehow they were environmentally superior and that they were behaving differently. I don’t mean to tar and feather an industry or even a company. I am just calling out BP for disingenuous branding and advertising.

  • What’s particularly disingenuous is the way BP acted like a group of vegetarians that bought a slaughterhouse and want to school all the meat eaters on the evils of meat. It’s a freakin’ oil company, full stop. As a large publicly held corporation their positioning, in every aspect, should reflect shareholder value and that’s to manage the business at hand. Their assets are networks of distribution storefronts, refineries, drilling rigs, etc. That’s the hand they were dealt and that is the game they need to play. If they want to be “green” they couldn’t possibly let this oil spill happen or spin in the press in this way. It’s not in their interest to redefine energy consumerism, energy policy or even be in the energy business if it doesn’t play to their hand. Buying Siemens solar was very very far afield to their actual assets and expertise and they totally failed. If they wanted to provide leadership they would have made sure this well head was up to standard or ceased to deal with Transocean. BP is a company has begged for a public flogging … and here it is.

  • Lisa,

    It should be evident by now, that consmers buy gas for price. Petro is an economic commodity and oil companies waste ther money on consumer appeal. If BP can keep their gas price low at the pump, consumers will continue buy their gas.

    The real losers ar the shareholders, who will exit the company because of declining share value, due to clean-up costs and lawsuits.

    The real brand target for BP and other oil companies is the financial market. Since you are right that oil disaster are inevitable on an industry wide basis,the proper positioning for a new BP brand position, is “reliability and safety technology, not new green energy initiatives. They have to now make a major innovative investment in the reliability and safety technology of their off-shore drilling and transport. This means innovation leadership, conjoined to apology. They have to lead the industry in this kind of investment to re-build shareholder confidence. They should have done this a long time ago. But this is the place where they have to show leadership now!

    Milton Kotler

  • LDMerriam

    Yes, quite right, Milton. In my work with ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, our research showed consumers so valued convenience would not even cross a median to get to another gas station. Brand had minimal impact compared to convenience on consumer behavior. Brand was for investors, public opinion influences, regulators, etc. They do indeed have a huge rebuild to do. In addition to ruining their environmental reputation, the way they are handling the crisis is very old school and not innovative or responsive or progressive. They are redoubling the damage with the approach they have taken. I doubt they will ever be able to return to their environmentally responsible or innovative positioning. I also doubt they will hire Merriam Associates to do their brand repair!

  • Kenneth Barr

    What’s the matter Merriam, couldn’t you sell anything to BP? I’ve seen BP/Arco/Amoco go up and down and back up many times in the past and the company will recover again just like always.

    For you to suggest that whatever they’re doing in response to this accident is not the right thing calls for some explanation of your qualifications as a disaster manager (I don’t mean propaganda or PR work). What if any credentials do you have in terms of deep sea drilling and engineering?

    I think your just sore that someone at BP told you to take a hike.

  • LDMerriam

    Hey Kenneth, thanks for your post. I am not a roughneck, so claim no expertise in deep sea drilling. I applaud the heroes (at BP, Transocean, the Coast Guard, etc) that are tirelessly working to stop the flow as I write. Because I lack that expertise, my post focuses on the marketing/PR aspect of this story.

    I’ve worked with Exxon, Mobil, Phillips, and Conoco on brand strategy. When they envied the BP brand, I advised them that the BP brand was only good as their luck lasted. That’s a risky brand strategy and now, indeed BP is out of luck.

    BP (and competitors) are not an evil companies trying to hurt the environment. But BP trying to take universal environmental concern to the level of claiming environmental superiority is where they went very, very wrong.

  • Kenneth Barr

    Okay Merriam, I’ll accept what you say. Just remember that a corporation can aspire to high ideals and can do everything in its power to achieve its laudable goals, and yes luck probably does play a part, but there will always be inherent danger in any operation that involves deep sea drilling.

    I’m sure that BP has the financial and technical expertise to outlive this very costly and unfortunate accident.

    I, like everyone else hope that the cause of this accident can be found so that it does not happen again and that the damage can be controlled in the shortest amount of time.

  • LDMerriam

    Thank you for re-iterating my point: “Oil is a dirty business, despite the very best efforts of everyone involved. It isn’t a matter of if, but when an oil company will cause environmental damage. ”
    –Lisa

  • In June, with critics comparing the Gulf to Hurricane Katrina, Obama announced the “British Petroleum” oil spill the “worst environmental disaster the US has ever faced”. America’s grubby politicians, green-lobby tub-thumpers, compensation claimants and their mega-bucks lawyers went completely ballistic every night on prime-time TV. However with more than 4,000 oil wells in the Gulf, the ecosystem is used to seepage, the light oil dissipated quickly in its warm waters, and powerful currents from the enormous Mississippi Delta swept much of it away from the shore. Today the pristine beaches are back to normal but Obama’s poisonous remarks have wiped £45 billion off the value of BP, damaged millions of US and UK pensions, and wrecked the tourist trade.

  • I believe your right. They know there’s oil there, and they’ll justify it by saying: How can you expect us to undergo all this cost if we can’t recoup some of our loses. Whatever the current fines may be, double them-at the very least-, and no more dithering on settlements to the lives and livelihoods disrupted.

  • Where is the video feeds from the mass array of close circuit security cameras mounted throughout BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig providing constant live-feed and recording of events prior to and during the BP explosion? It’s amazing that for 100+ days we have a crystal clear, lighted, live-video feed from a camera thousands of feet under the ocean highlighting the spillage, but…US media has not been replaying any video captured from rig cameras regarding the incident itself. 9/11 was played over and over across our TVs. So were Space Shuttle explosions, and so many other modern tragedies and events. Where’s the footage? Who’s hiding it? Why?

  • [...] deal are long gone. Task one for companies seeking protection from a Wikileaks-type assault is to avoid doing anything that would be embarrassing or damaging when made public (not if). Know that someone is always [...]

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