February 22, 2018 • Scott McMurray
Maybe it was millennium fever. Whatever the cause, BP suffered a severe loss of brand equilibrium 18 years ago this summer. That’s when the global oil and gas giant announced that henceforth, its iconic initials stood for Beyond Petroleum. The good news is that the company and its brand—despite a string of disasters in the interim and no shortage of critics—are well on the road to recovery.
How BP got from there to here says a lot about how essential it is for a brand’s purpose to be true to a company’s heritage. It’s a lesson in the evolution of brand purpose, the why behind what a company offers customers, not just the what, and the perils of leaving brand authenticity behind.
Cool Britannia. Prime Minister Tony Blair, years before his support of the Iraq War tarnished his legacy, governed a cultural if not actual empire from London. Diversity and globalism were the watchwords of the day. Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth topped the charts in 2000 and was the handbook for the new generation of Britons living in a multicultural world. The backlash that culminated in the stunning Brexit vote years later was little more than grumbling in provincial pubs.
From this vantage point, BP surveyed the future. It determined that the British Petroleum brand was redolent of its colonial legacy across much of the world. BP was not PC. That was a debatable but certainly defensible argument in favor of rebranding.
The problem was that the rebranding left behind heritage and authenticity, the building blocks of brand purpose. No question, BP was in many ways a creature of the British Empire, having originally been named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and selling a majority stake to the British government as World War I approached. But by focusing on the vestiges of empire, BP failed to honor another equally important strand of cultural legacy.
BP’s heritage of taking risks and using technology to find and extract fossil fuels was second to none. This was the company that played a leading role in finding oil on Alaska’s North Slope. And it built an environmentally sensitive pipeline, with hundreds of miles of pipe running above ground so as not to block migrating caribou. In the 1980s and 1990s, during a wave of oil industry consolidation, the company further increased its presence in the United States with the purchases of Standard Oil of Ohio, Amoco and ARCO.
So when BP declared that it was Beyond Petroleum, the slogan never really rang true, despite a $200 million public relations and advertising campaign with a new green and yellow sunburst logo. BP’s investments told a different story. In 1999, the company spend $45 million to buy Solarex, a solar energy company. That same year, it agreed to spend $26.5 billion to buy ARCO, following the whopping $48.2 billion Amoco deal the year before.
The real damage to lives and property, not just reputation and image, came in the years that followed. If the company management genuinely thought it was Beyond Petroleum, the danger was that its attention might stray from the incredible focus needed to operate an oil and gas extracting and refining business. This in itself would be a betrayal of the BP brand promise.
The oil and gas industry is dangerous on many levels. Few if any operators have been in business for long without some calamity. BP’s operating record following the rebranding was a tragedy in multiple acts.
In 2005, BP’s refinery in Texas City, Texas, suffered an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170 more. The following year, 250,000 gallons spilled from the BP North Slope pipeline. In both cases, TIME magazine reported, “it was alleged that cost-cutting measures instituted by BP executives had led to poor maintenance.”
The final act of the BP tragedy, of course, was the 2010 explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent spilling of more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. That catastrophe cost 11 lives and damaged more than 1,300 miles of coastline. BP’s total pretax costs are estimated at $62 billion.
BP jettisoned Beyond Petroleum in the wake of that disaster. It kept the green and yellow sunburst logo but no longer represented that it was turning its back on its brand and cultural legacy.
The company, especially in the United States, has diligently focused its brand, building on its commitment to its people and the communities where it is investing for the future. Some of that investment is for renewable energy sources, but the bulk remains targeted for fossil fuels. And the company once again is claiming its technological and can-do cultural heritage as integral to its brand purpose.
“We have navigated change before,” the company website says. “Our people love solving big complex challenges that matter. Together with our network of long-term and trusted relationships, we have a real contribution to make to the world’s ambition on a low-carbon future. This transition requires a spirit of invention and purpose—and we can help.”
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