BP and Making it Right.

The universe has an incredible sense of humor. And at one time or another, we have all experienced being the butt end of that kind of cosmic joke. Like when you rocked your hips in a victory dance after realizing you weren’t ticketed for your well-expired city parking meter, only to be rocked to the core moments later, when you discovered the car door was swiped. Or when you willed the rarely seen, single, and appropriately aged potential suitor, who took your digits at a recent LACMA event, to call you? And he does call. But during the conversation, he graciously asks if he should “Facebook” your twenty-something companion from that evening. What about the time your firm spent billions of dollars over a decade to create a brand image that carefully positioned itself within the energy sector as forward-thinking, environmentally-concerned, and driven—only to wake up to find itself directly linked to an oil spill. And not just any drip. No, your firm is now allegedly responsible for the “largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry,” the one that took four months to contain, and not before pumping billions of gallons of the crude stuff into U.S. waters, further devastating an already challenged eco-system. An eco-system that you sought to protect. Barrels of laughter.

To say BP (British Petroleum) has an image problem is an understatement. The news is reporting that to help offset plummeting sales at the pumps and lessen mounting disapproval with the general population, several owners of BP-branded gas stations are calling for a “name change” or in lieu of that, a return to the comparatively untarnished Amoco name.

Here’s the back story, which is full of delicious ironies: BP bought Amoco in 1998 and began the conversion of Amoco stations to “BP”-branded ones in 2001. At the same time, the company launched a new branding campaign, a charge led by the tagline “Beyond Petroleum.” (I know. You can’t make this stuff up, can you?) The tagline stayed in use until the present day—it’s a good line, and the company likely got a lot of mileage out of it—but the PR department must be cringing about it now.

The paradoxes don’t end with the tagline, either. As part of the effort to promote its new eco-friendly mantra, pre-spill BP vested a considerable amount of resources toward eco-focused projects—not only its stylish, green and yellow sunflower logo, but also research and future technologies. One consumer-oriented tangible was the 2007 creation of BP’s Helios House, a LEED-certified gas station right here in Los Angeles, coincidentally located a few minutes away from where I sit. According to one member involved on the project, brand daddy Brian Collins, “green destinations” like Helios House were designed to “provoke discussion,” and ultimately, to be reproduced throughout the country. “On the one hand people want to reduce the amount of energy we spend, but are ambivalent when it comes to the freedom they enjoy with automobiles. So we decided to go to the heart of the paradox,” he says. The project has yet to gain momentum, possibly because the inherent ironies in “the heart of the paradox” were either too much for or perhaps lost on American gas consumers: The “green” Helios House structure makes use of recycled materials, wood, solar panels, plants, and any number of other conservation-oriented techniques (i.e., it’s a physical branding campaign that screams, “We’re helping the environment!”), but at the end of the day, it’s a gas station, still pumping and selling good old non-eco-friendly gasoline.

So: When do you stop refilling the brand tank? I tell clients that creating and managing a brand is like choosing to birth and raise a child. You nurture the child as best you can, and when it does something wrong (even if it’s hugely detrimental to society), you don’t banish them immediately into exile. After all, abandonment is considered a crime in most states. Hopefully, you’re a parent who’s inclined to counsel that child to do what’s right: a) Fess up to a situation (be honest), b) say your sorry (take the blame), and c) make restitution (clean up the spill). If you’re running a semi-healthy household, in exchange for doing what’s right, at some point, that child will most likely be forgiven (and get to stay in business).

All this to say, another BP name shift or BP making a U-turn on any of its brand map roads would be money wasted on addressing a short-term issue. The main task at hand is fixing the actual problem. As BP continues its campaign to clean up the residual damage of the spill itself—making it right—its brand will slowly right itself, too. In short, the company execs need to stop worrying about how BP looks or sounds, or whether people like them or believe their branding anymore, and spend more time walking the walk, even when the road ahead is hard and long. The New York Times ran a wonderful piece in last week’s Sunday Business section that addresses recent PR missteps, and one quote in particular sums up the BP conundrum best: “It’s the height of arrogance to assume that in the middle of a crisis the public yearns for chestnuts of wisdom from people they want to kill. The goal is not to get people not to hate them. It’s to get people to hate them less.”

In the meantime, however, just like the BP stock, sales will continue to ride a slippery slope. BP will remain a poster child for hypocrisy for quite some time, and folks in the know will snicker at the current ramp-up of ad dollars being spent to pump up the Arco brand, a BP-owned company. Some BP branded station owners with expiring contracts will jump ship, bypassing a renewal in some form of protest and choosing competitors instead. And many American gas consumers will do the same at the gas pump. Myself included. These days, I can’t help but pass Helios House by, and I feel drawn to patronize a neighboring Exxon Mobile to fill up the Bimmer. The same Exxon Mobile that was responsible for the “first” largest oil spill of all time––yet ironically, still lives.

Filed: branding, crisis management, green marketing, public relations

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