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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 notworry too much about their brand image. But the longer this tragedy goeson, the more I wonder if this company ever had a soul.

After the devastating Gulf oil spill, I wrote a few weeks ago about BP needing to look after their brand’s soul and notworry too much about their brand image. But the longer this tragedy goeson, 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.

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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 wordsbeing spewed about like oil leaking into the Gulf? Who came up with these names? I know what a “dead man’s switch” is, butgiven there have been 11 fatalities in this disaster, one would think BP wouldbe more considerate about what they are saying. Or is “spilling”everything just part of their M.O.?

BP’spseudo-branding terms for how they are going to fix the disaster may wellrepresent 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 ofvolume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to thetotal water volume.” That rhetoric is an insulting description forthis calamity, particularly to the thousands who make a living in that waterand depend on that water.

BPand its marketing and branding agencies had done a great job on their brand foryears. To see them now abandon any sort of positive strategic thoughtabout how the brand is being portrayed just proves that the visual and verbalbrand identity created for BP was only skin deep. There never was an Oz outthere. 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 thingwill ultimately be while being blasted with 24/7 coverage about how BP istrying 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 couldcertainly argue that names don’t matter–that they can call their fixes LittleBo Peep as long as they do something that actually works. But it’s hardto fathom why BP isn’t branding the possible solutions to this crisis with morepositive 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 samebrand geniuses that brought us the Helios House and the beautiful iconography to at least make us feel a little better aboutthis debacle?

I suspect there is group huddling as we speak, withmarketers clicking their gooey, tar-ladened heels together and saying, “There’sno place like home.” Sorry, BP, you’ll be living with what may be the worstman-made environmental disaster in history for a long time.

Jamey Boiter’s Brand Innovatr blog
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Jamey Boiter is a nationallyrecognized brand strategist and practitioner. As BOLTgroup’s brandprincipal, he oversees all brand innovation and graphic design teams.He has received numerous awards, ADDYs, and citations for his work inbrand development, packaging, and corporate identity, includingaward-winning projects for AirDye, Lowe’s, IZOD, Nat Nast, G.H. Bass,Marc Ecko, and Forté Cashmere. Jamey has been involved in strategicbrand development and design management programs with world-classbrands such as Kobalt Tools, Ryobi, Coca-Cola, Kraft, IZOD, andPhillips-Van Heusen, and has been a featured speaker at nationalconferences and college campuses on the subject of brand strategy,innovation and development.

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About the author

Jamey Boiter is a nationally recognized brand strategist and practitioner. As BOLTgroup’s brand principal, he oversees all brand innovation and graphic design teams

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