When it comes to the brand school of Hard Knocks, there's only a few who've been hit the way BP has over the last two months. Since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana, which killed eleven workers and caused the worst oil spill in US History, BP PLC has found itself under immense pressure (and boycotts of BP brands) from the general public, customers, regulators, the White House, and an army of liability lawyers. This is brand crisis on every level.
The BP Brand Strategy
A decade ago a global brand consulting firm conducted an extensive BP brand repositioning, which moved the company from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. BP changed their logo, image, name and positioning to demonstrate the business actively "exploring new ways to live without oil."
It seemed BP was living up to this vision: their CEO recognised the link between fossil fuels and global warming and they had invested billions of dollars into alternative energy development. Not only that, but research found consumers were excited by this vision and bought into it. The brand research showed BP managed to be perceived as the most "environmental" of all oil brands, and a UK marketing poll even found them rating amongst the Top 10 green brands!
So where did it all go wrong?
How credible was this brand positioning really? And to what extent did the organization ever get beyond this audacious promise to in fact work towards making it a reality? Because this is where the real challenge lies. Not in recreating an acronym, but rather in re-positioning the world's second biggest producer of fossil fuels to where BP actually stood for, Beyond Petroleum.
Now we appreciate it's all so easy to come and commentate on their performance after the event, and the blogosphere is full of it (even Exxon has had the hide to comment!). That is not our purpose here. Rather we want to demonstrate authentic and accountable branding is much more than lofty logo change-outs and clever name changes. It's about truly living the positioning and with this in mind consider the following:
Was the brand promise aligned within and throughout the business?
One of the fundamental basics of branding is authentic alignment between creating perception and delivering reality. If BP's brand was Beyond Petroleum, what precise vision and actions guided their oil production business, and the way it related to employees? Was the brand really integrated into all stages of the business, or was it sidelined and relegated into the marketing and PR departments without it having a significant role in the day-to-day life of the business?
Did the CEO actually buy into the new positioning long term?
A brand doesn't merely "represent" the company. The brand's vision should be driving the business towards quality, innovation, alignment and leadership. It should direct how they relate to clients and the public, and how day-to-day operations take place. The brand is the businesses guiding vision that infuses every area of the companies operations. It is not a separate messaging board. At the end of the day, brands are judged by their actions and outcomes, not by what they promise.
Did re-positioning actually impact the business?
What quantifiable goals did they set to explore other fuel sources or profit engines for shareholders that were in fact Beyond Petroleum? Ten years on and despite exploration into other fuel sources (bio fuels, solar etc) and glossy aspirational advertising 99% of BP's business is still in oil production. A challenging reality for their customers and public, when their brand attempted to positioned them as leaders of green renewable energy...
Can we link prior delivery back to the re-positioning?
Brands are like an equity or heat exchange unit. They make positive deposits via delivery on their promises and build positive reserves of brand equity. Useful when your brand has a problem and needs to make a rather significant withdrawal - sounding familiar? Brands that have built positive equity over time are then ready to perform under pressure, make tough decisions and have the inherent confidence to be authentic with the public. The big withdrawal is made, but based on the previous positive actions there is still a positive balance. Alas, BP has not delivered on its positioning, so there is little positive equity left to draw upon and the share price reflects this. Had they delivered on their promise they may have had evidence to point to their strong proactive environmental initiatives, thus shielding themselves when disasters like this strike....
What are BP's employees saying?
Employees are the ones who make brands 'work.' They're the ones embodying the brand and presenting its culture externally. A company's brand is its entire culture, way of working, methodology, and way of relating to people. Employees make the brand come alive. They have to see the brand in action and feel moved to get on board because the brand is an amazing way to be creative, responsible and productive on the job. Ideally the brand is an expression of the best in them. A brand can only be positioned within employees by someone owning the positioning and leading through example - we can only assume this has not happened.
In any brand positioning we live by four key words - is the brand positioning Credible, Relevant, Differentiating and Sustainable?
- Credibility - is delivered actions, not words - and in strong positioning, the deeper the scrutiny, the more credible the positioning becomes. Enough said.
- Relevance - the positioning was considered relevant by the brand's audience, but alas not by the brand's senior leadership...therefore it was not enacted internally.
- Differentiation - occurs not via declaration, but rather through delivery.
- Sustainability - is about future proofing the brand. BP will need to go back to the fundamentals, yet with sustained and committed leadership aligned to the positioning it is capable of coming back on their once strong brand value, and then going forward.