Rebranding: Not Beyond Credibility

Mark RitsonMay 21, 20102844 min

Rebranding: Not Beyond Credibility

The bad news mounts for BP as the petrol giant has admitted that efforts to plug its Deepwater Horizon well and prevent any more crude oil escaping continue to fail.

One mile from the surface, and 50 miles from some of the most beautiful and valuable coastline on Earth, the leak continues unabated. And you can forget the estimates of how many gallons of oil are being pumped into the Gulf of Mexico each day, because BP has also conceded it has no clue exactly how much oil is leaking out.

These uncertainties add to the growing list of major imponderables facing the beleaguered British oil company. BP has said it does not know when the leak will be stopped, nor does it have any idea what the long-term ramifications for local communities and industries will be. It has also said it has no clue what the final cleanup bill will come to – except that it will be in the billions and that BP will be liable for every penny. Indeed, the implications are so inestimably huge at this stage that the only accurate bellwether of the kind of trouble BP now finds itself in has been the ashen, horrified look on chief executive Tony Hayward’s face. All the media training in the world cannot disguise the enormity of the problem now facing Hayward and his company.

Any oil company finding itself in this situation would be in trouble. But there is, of course, a very specific reason why BP, of all companies, is going to suffer more spectacularly than any other from this disaster. BP, as we now all know, now stands for “Beyond Petroleum”. In the most famous repositioning case of the century, Ogilvy and Landor helped BP to change its logo, its name and its positioning to reflect the fact that the company was now actively “exploring new ways to live without oil”.

There were many skeptics, who accused BP of greenwashing. But it appeared to most that BP really was walking the walk: its CEO had accepted a link between burning fossil fuels and global warming, the company was investing billions in alternative energy development and, in developing the original campaign, Ogilvy’s team had found “hundreds of astonishing proof points that made the vision credible”. To underline its vision BP even festooned its headquarters with aloe vera – which removes more carbon dioxide from the air than any other green plant.

Research confirmed that consumers had become believers, too. Landor’s own brand research revealed that BP was seen as the most environmental oil brand, with more than half the market now agreeing that it had become “more green” in the past five years. BP’s brand awareness shot up from 4% in 2000 to 67% in 2007.

But, of course, it was all nonsense. How could the second biggest producer of fossil fuels on the planet truly reposition itself as a company that was moving Beyond Petroleum? It was a magical play on the company’s initials but it should have ended 30 seconds after the initial idea was raised. Yet people bought into BP’s repositioning because they saw glimmers of actual behavioral change. But if we had all looked harder, we would have realized that glimmers were all they were. Beyond them, in the deep, industrial wasteland of BP’s day-to-day business, were operations and revenues based on digging holes into the Earth and pumping out oil that would then be burned by millions of people on a daily basis.

Which brings us back to one of the fundamental truths of branding: repositioning is almost always impossible. No matter how attractive it appears or how commonly we use the term in marketing, the actual business of changing a brand’s DNA and being successful is ridiculous. It looks good on a flip chart: Here we are in the lower-left quadrant, but we’d sell more if we moved to the top right of the chart. In a nutshell, that was Ogilvy’s argument to BP. And it was right: consumers did want a more environmentally proactive oil brand. But actually changing a brand from black to white – or from oil to green – is a ludicrous notion. Even when you can fool the people into believing the change has occurred – and to BP’s credit, or shame, that’s certainly something it achieved – you cannot change the fundamental nature of the way a brand does business.

All the benefits BP accrued from its 10-year, temporary repositioning will now be reversed and replaced by the much bigger reputational costs of failing to deliver on something they promised so successfully. BP’s skyrocketing brand awareness will mean more media coverage and more damage to its reputation than if it had kept a lower profile. Its “progressive” and “responsible” brand values will come back to haunt it. And the aloe vera plants at HQ will be no defense as marine animals and birds start to wash up on the Louisiana coast in their thousands later this week.

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