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From "Top Kill" to "Dead Man's Switch": What BP's Oil Spill Lexicon Reveals About Its Brand

After the devastating Gulf oil spill, I wrote a few weeks ago about BP needing to look after their brand's soul and not worry too much about their brand image. But the longer this tragedy goes on, the more I wonder if this company ever had a soul. In the latest news, as BP scrambles to stop the leak, the misguided brand is drowning in poor word choices that are making its failing efforts feel even worse.

Strategies to stop the leak are named "Top Kill," "Top Hat," "Hot Tap," "Junk Shot." They're using something called "Corexit" as the oil dispersant. We have heard that the explosion was caused by "dead batteries in the dead man's switch." What is up with these heinous words being spewed about like oil leaking into the Gulf? Who came up with these names? I know what a "dead man's switch" is, but given there have been 11 fatalities in this disaster, one would think BP would be more considerate about what they are saying. Or is "spilling" everything just part of their M.O.?

BP's pseudo-branding terms for how they are going to fix the disaster may well represent something essential about the true BP. After all, their CEO, Tony Hayward famously declared: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." That rhetoric is an insulting description for this calamity, particularly to the thousands who make a living in that water and depend on that water.

BP and its marketing and branding agencies had done a great job on their brand for years. To see them now abandon any sort of positive strategic thought about how the brand is being portrayed just proves that the visual and verbal brand identity created for BP was only skin deep. There never was an Oz out there. Only a get-it-on-the-cheap bureaucracy behind the green curtain. How are we as consumers suppose to digest the uncertainty of how bad this thing will ultimately be while being blasted with 24/7 coverage about how BP is trying to "kill" this and "tap" that or throw "junk" at it? Even "Deepwater Horizon" sounds like something I hope I never see in person.

You could certainly argue that names don't matter—that they can call their fixes Little Bo Peep as long as they do something that actually works. But it's hard to fathom why BP isn't branding the possible solutions to this crisis with more positive names that resonate a good outcome, even if it's only their hope. Where is the crisis management group, and why aren't they working with the same brand geniuses that brought us the Helios House and the beautiful iconography to at least make us feel a little better about this debacle?

I suspect there is group huddling as we speak, with marketers clicking their gooey, tar-ladened heels together and saying, "There’s no place like home." Sorry, BP, you'll be living with what may be the worst man-made environmental disaster in history for a long time.

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.