A lesson in poor branding

A decade or so ago British Petroleum launched what seemed at the time a brilliant branding campaign. What would eventually become BP was born when a British adventurer and entrepreneur became the first to strike oil in the Middle East in 1908. William D’Arcy’s Anglo-Persian Oil Co. became British Petroleum in 1954 and began to assemble an international energy giant with the purchase of a sizable portion of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil companies and ARCO. The company was known as BP AMOCO until a few more oil companies were acquired, leading to a radical re-branding in the year 2000, when it morphed into BP with its now-famous green-and-yellow sunburst logo and the slogan “Beyond Petroleum.”

It seemed a stroke of branding genius at the time. The oil industry was taking a major part of the blame for environmental degradation and global warming. BP drew a distinct difference between itself and its competitors by applying a $200 million coat of advertising and public-relations lipstick to the pig. The “Beyond Petroleum” campaign moved the BP brand to a perception that it was one of the greenest petroleum companies in the world. Those marketing academics that have developed several matrices to measure such things reckon the effort created $19.9 billion in brand equity for the company. It seemed to be proof that an aggressive communications effort could accomplish wonders.

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My firm does quite a bit of branding work for corporations, trade associations and political entities. We believe that a good campaign can increase political equity as well as consumer support. But we don’t believe a distinctive logo or a clever tagline alone will build a brand. A brand does not exist in a vacuum — it is buffeted, shaped and challenged by the world within which it lives. To be strong enough to survive, it must be a core concept. It is why an entity exists, what it stands for and aspires to be. It is what you do and how you do it.

BP has given lip service to those principles in the past. Speaking at a global marketing forum a year after its re-branding campaign was launched, Global Marketing Vice President Anna Catalano said branding was about “building great companies with a strong sense of purpose and shared values that clearly articulate a distinctive position.”

Hmmm. Would this be the marketing guru of the same company that refused to take any responsibility for the disastrous oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that still pours over 200,000 gallons of crude oil into a fragile ecosystem every day? Or the owner of the Texas City refinery that exploded in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170 others? Or the company that ran the Alaska pipeline that leaked 267,000 gallons of crude in 2006? The one with another Alaska pipeline that split wide open, shutting down Alaska’s entire oil supply? Or the one forced to pay $485 million in fines to the U.S. alone in the past five years?

That doesn’t sound like a company moving beyond petroleum to me. Fact is, less than 2 percent of BP’s revenues has come from alternative energy in the first quarter of this year. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with being in the oil business. The world is not yet ready to shift to alternative energy, and someone has to do the hard, dirty work of finding, extracting and delivering fossil fuels until we can run this planet on clean, renewable energy. There is something wrong, however, with lying about what it is you do and then doing a very bad job at how you do it. The dirty little secret in the energy business is that BP was considered one of the most reckless operators 20 years ago, and it still is. How could such an experienced company drill an experimental well without something as fundamental as a shutoff valve? Negligence in pursuit of profits is the only logical answer.

A decade ago some very clever marketing people devised a plan to position BP as a different kind of company. It was a brilliant campaign, but one that got way out in front of its business procedures. BP America Chairman Lamar McKay made clear in his congressional testimony last week that that operating model hasn’t changed. His defensive finger-pointing even made Halliburton look good. 

The bottom line is that BP was running the show, and regulators, politicians and consumers got that message clearly. After establishing a benchmark for innovative marketing a decade ago, McKay and his company have shown us all how to kill a brand.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com

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