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:
- BP has become the antithesis of its proclaimed identity. It has gored its own icon. How could that happen to a billion-dollar brand?
- 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.
- 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.