Advice to BP: Forget Your Brand Image and Concentrate on Your Brand's Soul

The articles and blogs are flying in my world about what BP needs to do to fix their image in the shadow of this catastrophic disaster in the Gulf. Marketers and social media specialists are all gladly suggesting how to fix the Big Problem. But frankly, I'm not really concerned with BP's brand image right now. I'm more concerned with their brand soul.

We all remember the Exxon Valdez accident, and the damage it caused, not only to the Alaskan shoreline but also to the brand for many years. And it's clear now that Exxon had built such a strong, emotive brand among consumers at the time that the brand's goodwill helped save the company from total collapse in the end.

So what's going to happen with BP with what may be the worst man-made disaster in history? Does their brand have what it takes to overcome such a devastating blow? Here's what BP says about their brand on their Web site:

"Since BP petrol first went on sale in Britain in the 1920s, the brand has grown to become recognized worldwide for quality gasoline, transport fuels, chemicals and alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar and biofuels. We help the world meet its growing need for heat, light and mobility, and strive to do so by producing energy that is affordable, secure and doesn't damage the environment.

"BP is progressive, responsible, innovative and performance driven. Our logo – the Helios - symbolizes these values. Named after the Greek sun god, the Helios represents energy in its many forms. Of all the forms of energy that make up BP and its services, perhaps the most vital is the human energy our people bring to everything we do. This is what fuels our brand."

BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward discusses the oil spill cleanup operation with a U.S. Coast Guard officer

So good ol' Helios "symbolizes" all these great values that BP lives every day? Right. BP has had three of the largest and deadliest oil-related accidents in the last five years. My concern is not the beautifully-designed brand identity or the implementation that still takes the breath away of any designer worth their salt. My concern is that the company is not and may never have been living the brand, but rather just pretending to.

Few brands have been so consistent in their approach to creating a beautifully sustainable brand. They completely dropped British Petroleum for a more suave "beyond petroleum" moniker, and incorporated beautiful iconography of their new clean initiatives that reflected the brilliance of the green and yellow Helios. They even used lower case initials to soften their message to consumers. They started a blog called the Green Curve. They built a fancy, eco-friendly "gas station of the future" in L.A. Yeah, we bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Yet BP forgot a very basic principle of brand repositioning, building and marketing: Deliver on the promise of the brand. You can create anything, but it's only when a company embraces the pillars, the tenets of the brand, that this becomes reality. Pretty logos mean nothing if your actions don’t back up what you say.  As Gardiner Morse pointed out earlier this week for the Harvard Business Review, BP forgot to "walk the talk".

We're just now learning that BP may be one of the worst violators of environmental standards, as porous as they may be. The problem is, it's not about brand. Not about image. That would be easy to fix. People have died. Local economies are in danger of collapsing. And the environment could be permanently damaged.

I was wrong about BP, having cited them to be on the good side of the greenwashing debate among brands. I now agree that they've earned the "Emerald Paintbrush," bestowed upon them by Greenpeace, for blatant greenwashing. So here's my only brand advice for BP:  Change your "beyond petroleum" tag to "better pray" while you still have a brand soul.

Jamey Boiter's Brand Innovatr blog
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Jamey Boiter is a nationally recognized brand strategist and practitioner. As BOLTgroup's brand principal, he oversees all brand innovation and graphic design teams. He has received numerous awards, ADDYs, and citations for his work in brand development, packaging, and corporate identity, including award-winning projects for AirDye, Lowe's, IZOD, Nat Nast, G.H. Bass, Marc Ecko, and Forté Cashmere. Jamey has been involved in strategic brand development and design management programs with world-class brands such as Kobalt Tools, Ryobi, Coca-Cola, Kraft, IZOD, and Phillips-Van Heusen, and has been a featured speaker at national conferences and college campuses on the subject of brand strategy, innovation and development.

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10 Comments

  • Daniel Baur

    What Exxon didn't have to deal with but BP does is social media. While Exxon could hide behind PR, BP can't. Even tough they are trying to manipulate Google AdWords and search results, bloggers reveal the whole truth and it's nearly impossible to control the information flow.

    During the last week we've analyzed the top 1000 blog posts (http://www.social-brand-value..... Not only has BP caused the largest man made tragedy but also has to face the largest "I-hate-your-brand" campaign ever launched by man.

  • Robert Vitale

    No, forget your brand image and your brand's soul, and put all of your efforts into stopping this gusher and cleaning up this mess. This is not about saving a company, it's about saving the environment and the livelihood's of those who live along the gulf coast. Ironically, the clean up (which will take decades) is most likely the only way BP will salvage "the brand."

    Personally, discussing the BP brand with so much more at stake is making me ill.

  • karljeffery

    Hi, please bear in mind that nobody has yet found any negligence in this case and it is completely possible that there wasn't any. The well involved the world's leading drilling companies, cement companies, blow out protector manufacturers, using their top technology, processes and people, and BP was just their customer. Filipe Frota, perhaps you can tell me what $500,000 security device would have prevented this. A better conversation here could be: should we carry on drilling deeper and deeper offshore developed countries and pushing the frontiers of technology - or should we be pushing harder to get oil from countries such as Nigeria, Russia and Venezuela where spills like this sometimes don't even get reported - or should we be getting better at finding ways to encourage people out of their cars - or should we be moving faster to an arena where cars are propelled by energy sourced from gas or coal + carbon capture.

    The drilling of the well involved the world's leading drilling companies, cement companies and blow out protector manufacturers, and BP's direct involvement in the case was just contracting with these companies.

  • Filipe Frota

    Months ago I visited BP's website and I was taken aback to see all the green iniciatives they had going on. Their marketing team has done an excelent job, but... this recent oil spill disaster proves that they are not really commited to the cause. How come a 300 billion dollar/year company did not spend $500k on a security device that would have prevented this disaster?? They owe the planet big time.

  • Hamish McIntyre

    Some fair points there, but to be fair to BP too, they were very quick to accept responsibility and say they would be footing the full bill to the tune of many billions. Unfortunately accidents happen, but they are working hard to clean it up. It's not what you say about yourself that makes your brand, it's what you do - and so far they seem to be doing all they can.