BP: Brand Resurrection or Requiem for Branding?

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Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2012

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Back in November 2011, Interbrand’s online forum, brandchannel, published a piece by senior media executive Sheila Shayon about BP’s recent efforts at reviving their "battered" brand. 
After almost completely caving over the disastrous 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, in which 11 people died and millions of barrels of crude spilled into the waters off Louisiana, BP is planning to start drilling a 6,000-ft. well in a field about 150 miles further out. The Deep Horizon well was 5,000 feet down and 40 miles from the same coast.

Having unloaded assets of $25 billion to help finance the $40 billion cost to clean up Deep Horizon, and still not having paid a single cent in fines, the company is looking for new sources of revenue. 

This is also the company that in July 2000, launched a high-profile, $200 million rebrand campaign designed by Ogilvy & Mather, hired Landor Associates to change its old logo into a happy green and yellow sunburst, and started pitching itself as a green energy company, even though 98 per cent of its revenues were still derived from the extraction of fossil fuels.


That number hasn’t changed much in the 12 years since the rebrand. Thus to many, the "Beyond Petroleum" campaign has always been a brazen lie. I remember sharing the case study with a group of design students at Sheridan back in 2002 or so. They saw right through it. Somehow they weren’t convinced that BP’s installation of small wind turbines to help power its filling stations was emblematic of a company that was truly moving “beyond petroleum.” They rightly saw it as an egregious case of “greenwashing.” At least before, it wasn’t lying about what it did for a living.


Last summer, BP began yet another attempt at duplicitous brand communication by launching a campaign in support of the London 2012 Olympics. In one spot, cyclists and runners weave in and out of a traffic jam, race through an art gallery, and blow through farmers’ fields in what can only be viewed as a reprise of the kind of diversionary blather that marked the 2000 rebrand. The name for the campaign? “Fuelling the Future.” Right.


This is exactly the kind of behaviour that gives branding a bad name.  It makes people view brands not so much as signals of value, as Harvard business guru Michael Porter would have it, but as signals of subterfuge. When the fourth largest company in the world cares much more about its reputation than about the actual health and well-being of the people it serves, the communities in which it operates and the environments in which it drills, it brings all branding down with it.  And the firms that create this crap do the same for our industry. 


We’re only as strong as the weakest links in our chain, and if we keep this up, the public will be right in feeling that we’re just yanking theirs.