Brand lessons from the BP oil disaster


It’s not too early to discern some strategic brand lessons from BP’s horrific oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is a global oil giant with a highly visible (and controversial) brand identity: a major oil company that’s positioned itself as “beyond petroleum.” Yet today the BP brand is smothered in oil as far as the eye can see, a symbol (and agent) of massive pollution.

Why the BP disaster is a big deal for brands

The BP oil disaster is a big deal for brands because it marks a catastrophic failure of a top-tier brand. As such, it stands to have far-reaching consequences that will play out in time across all brands. At this early stage, three immediate “big deal” factors stand out to my mind:

  1. BP has become the antithesis of its proclaimed identity. It has gored its own icon. How could that happen to a billion-dollar brand?
  2. We may be witnessing the greatest sudden loss of brand trust by a company in the history of business. This is much more than a brand doing a poor job of crisis management. It appears that the BP brand took its eye off the ball and allowed the crisis to happen, a transgression no brand—or business— can afford.
  3. Events suggest that BP’s reliance on “positioning,” “messaging” and “mindshare” (an advertising approach to brands) helped decouple the brand from operational realities. The resulting BP brand was “positioned in the mind” of a campaign audience but had diminished presence in BP’s drilling operations, where it was desperately needed before and after the blowout. Current cost of this disconnect: $2 billion (and growing).

What are the long term brand consequences?

As I see it, the BP oil disaster will contribute to a reassessment of the conventional “mindshare” approach to brands that treats brands as media artifacts in a persuasion package to shape perceptions. This superficial “branding” approach can blind the brand to operational issues desperately in need of brand direction. There’s growing evidence that this is exactly what happened in BP’s case. The brand outcome is the full story. It can’t be bottled in a mindshare campaign.

Due to the enormity of BP’s brand failure I’d expect to see a new emphasis on brands  as a method of delivering operating value, rather than symbolic campaigns. In this structured brand value approach, brand principles and priorities directly drive business decisions, with a brand’s full emotional force. This is a working brand of company culture, rather than campaigns.

What went wrong with the BP brand?

What went wrong with the BP brand? The framing question, as I see it, is this: Did BP fail its brand? Or did the brand fail BP? At present, I’d say the answer is “Both.”

We also want answers to related questions: Were there critical flaws in the BP brand approach? In the brand model? In the brand strategy? In brand program execution? Was the problem weak brand leadership? Or was the brand simply marginalized, relegated to media campaigns and decoupled from essential company operations (e.g., brand practice in the oilfield) where it might have made a difference?

If the BP brand was indeed “beyond petroleum,” what precise vision and values guided BP’s oil production business, and its dedicated employees? BP’s 80-page  Code of Conduct, “Our commitment to integrity,” makes no mention of the BP brand. How is that possible?

Not surprisingly, other oil companies are distancing themselves from BP’s oilfield practices.

A note about this post

I’m writing this as events unfold, so my assessments are preliminary. I’m also aware that BP is not the only company with responsibilities in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. My focus here is on brands as a form of strategic and operational leadership, and that means a focus on BP.

With a failing brand, BP’s troubles just keep gushing

When a brand fails, everything fails, and BP’s travails certainty point to systematic brand failure. We have BP’s CEO being raked over the coals in the US Congress. BP is currently facing possible criminal charges, accusations of cover-ups, fines of up to $258 million per day, and accusations of blocking reporters from covering the story. There are also serious allegations that BP had been cutting corners on safety.

BP’s brand failings have jeopardized the credibility of the oil industry itself, and will certainly lead to greater—and more costly—industry regulation.

What’s especially troubling is that these are the kinds of breakdowns in quality that brand programs are designed to prevent. A more effective BP brand program might have saved the $20 billion that BP must now set aside in escrow to pay for environmental and community damages.

The BP brand could have been a hero and shining star in this tragic episode.  Currently, it bleeds copious amounts of trust with every passing day.

Basic brand lessons

What follows are some basic brand lessons from the BP oil disaster as I see them at the present time. 7

1. “Positioning” the brand where the core business isn’t (in BP’s case, “beyond petroleum”) puts the brand at risk.

The BP oil catastrophe may herald the end of artificial “brand positioning” as an element of brand strategy. Under its striking Helios logo BP claimed a high-profile positioning as a “green” renewable energy leader “beyond petroleum.” As such, the BP brand was aiming for a make-believe category in people’s minds, since BP’s business was petroleum for the foreseeable future. Instead of being an enlightened brand of  innovative and responsible oil production, where 99% of its business resided, BP apparently let its “beyond petroleum” positioning blind it to a disturbing pattern of  risky design practices and short-cuts over a decade of operations.

In the real world, it’s the vision and values at the operations level that position the brand—and the business—to succeed.

2. Conceiving brands as perceptions can undercut core brand practice, and increase risk.

A conventional school of brands contends that brands are largely perceptions. That is, the “brand” is how the company and brand are perceived. This school fashions brands as the stuff of media campaigns:  ads, images, symbols, stories, myths, slogans and PR, shaping brands as (campaignable) contexts of meaning. The brand aims to be a belief system, as part of an overall persuasion package. BP’s “beyond petroleum” ethos follows this approach.

Unfortunately, this is a limiting brand approach that condemns brands to advertising outcomes. Brands relegated to media campaigns lose their operational edge. They may be of little use in times of crisis. When the chips are down and you really need the brand’s help, it’s off on some billboard, or a 30-second spot. Thus, this approach may be risky indeed.

BP would have been better served with a brand approach focused on core brand practices at the operations level. In this approach the brand becomes a top-to-bottom shared “way” that infuses the organization. This focus on brand practice at the core, work-front level often spells the difference between high quality and low quality, between letting something slide and drawing the line.

Brands strong at the core don’t “cut corners” in critical operations.

3. A company can’t ignore the operating brand principle: “The closer you look, the better we look.”

The whole purpose of having an effective brand program is that the closer stakeholders look, the better the company looks. This is done with sustained integrity and brand accountability up and down the line. The brand earns respect because it stands (and stands up) for exemplary values that other companies can’t match. It earns admiration because it shows courage in taking a principled stand in how it operates. Employees, shareholders, partners and the community all benefit.

Unfortunately, since the blowout BP has left the impression that it wants to hide the accident and its consequences from public view.  This further undermines trust in the brand.

4. Brand boilerplate is no substitute for brand accountability

BP certainly flourishes impressive brand boilerplate on its website, but the brand  seems to float like a veneer, with little depth or engagement into the company, or into stakeholders. There’s no explicit brand accountability. It’s as if the brand were designed to be projected on a wall rather than pumped into the veins of the business.

From the BP website it appears that BP was more interested in going through the motions of a brand, with all the trimmings, rather than building an effective brand from the ground up. A stronger brand would tell the world what it’s responsible for, how it’s accountable, and how it wants to be measured.

5. A brand must do more than “represent” the company

To succeed, a brand like BP’s must do more than “represent” the company (as the BP website says. ) A brand that “represents” the company doesn’t drive the company.   A brand ‘s mission is to drive the company’s quality, innovation, operations and business practices to create customers and competitive advantage. Ethereal symbols and slogans in the name of the brand don’t really help at the point of production. BP says its brand is “a unifying and inspiring spirit for our entire organization.” That’s not enough. The brand takes charge and lays down the law. It’s a set of supreme operating principles and directives. Otherwise, it’s fluff.

6. “Brand equity” is no substitute for brand competence.

Before the blowout the BP brand enjoyed worldwide recognition, won prestigious awards from marketers, and had a 2009 market cap of $180 billion. Yet its track record in the last decade is hardly that of a competent brand. Fifteen BP employees lost their lives at a BP refinery explosion in Texas 2005. A year later an embarrassing and costly BP pipeline leak occurred in  Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Throw in an attempt to manipulate natural gas markets and BP was fined a total of $370 million by the US Dept. of Justice for environmental crimes and fraud.

A competent brand earns trust; an incompetent brand squanders it. A competent brand builds expertise into a platform of confidence for future operations. Based on its record, BP seems behind the curve in this regard. As I see it, this is what happens when you position the brand as advertising. Brand-driven operations deliver more traction.

7. In a crisis, brand character steps up, and steps forward. If brand character is missing, the brand appears inept, or cynical, or both.

People want their brands to be heroes. They want their brands to perform under pressure, to stand up to adversity, to make tough decisions, and (always) to level with them in the process. This is the brand as team leader. We build brands for this purpose. Companies with character build brands with character. Brands with character lead.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is BP’s show. It’s the chance for the BP brand to stand tall and show the world what BP is made of. It’s a character test for BP, a test the brand should welcome. It’s a chance for the brand to lead. Two months have passed since the accident, but BP’s brand character has yet to step forward in clear and decisive fashion. It seems to act only when pushed to the wall. That’s not brand leadership.

8. A brand can’t hide its heroes

At the present time the BP brand has no visible champion. The brand seems hunkered down, defensive, evasive, guarded, saying as little as possible, or saying nothing at all. It’s become a brand of defense lawyers.

At the operations level, however, buried from view, there are certainly legions of BP heroes, from engineers to drillers to dozens of crafts working tirelessly to solve the monumentally complex problems caused by the blowout. Deep oil drilling is extremely difficult even in the best of times. In a crisis it is exponentially difficult, dangerous and unforgiving. How many amazing BP brand stories of courage and ingenuity are there at the work front as BP battles to stanch the blowout? Quite a few, I’d imagine, but BP has kept them out of sight. Their impact could help reverse BP’s precipitous brand free fall. The American people would want to hear them too.

9. Brands are outcomes, not promises

BP has an exquisite mark brilliantly designed by Landor, one that positions BP as “an environmental leader” with the promise of “moving beyond the petroleum sector.” We are now more than a decade into that captivating mark and that far-reaching promise. While BP has made important and commendable investments in renewable energy, its defining brand behavior may be that of a company with “egregious” safety violations in recent years, leading to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

In the real world brands are judged by their outcomes. Sadly, the reigning outcome for the BP brand currently looks like this.

10. The only place to “position” brands is inside employees. They make the brand work. To do this you lead by example.

Brands are culture, not campaigns. A company’s brand is a way of getting things done, tuned to the precise vision and values of the company. It’s a method, a practice, an art, all wrapped in the company culture. Thus, the only place to “position” a brand is inside employees. They make the brand what it is, and what it can be. Employees aren’t “aligned” to the brand. They see the brand in action and join up because the brand is an amazing opportunity to be creative, responsible and productive on the job. The brand is an expression of the best in themselves.

The only way to position the brand inside employees is to lead by example.

The world is waiting for the BP brand to take this step.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

3 Responses to “Brand lessons from the BP oil disaster”

  1. herman Says:

    Pinpointing BP’s Pitfalls: Eight Ways to Reconnect After a Disaster

    Read the full article here:

  2. Ed Burghard Says:

    BP damaged more than its own brand. It also damaged the image of the communities involved and made it harder for them to compete for capital investment. Read about the work being done to help economic development professionals refurbish their community brands.

  3. Brian Phipps Says:

    You make an excellent point. There’s an aggregate brand loss to all the states, industries and communities affected by the spill. How will BP help repair all the brand identities that have been “fouled” by encroaching oil. Capping the blowout and/or killing the well can only be a first step.