© BP p.l.c.
If British Petroleum manages to plug the leaking oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, survive the costs of cleanup and litigation, and hold on to its rights to drill off the shores of the United States, company executives may finally have time to confront yet another problem created by the rapidly spreading slick: the evisceration of the BP brand.
BP’s brand equity has exploded almost as quickly as its faulty well mechanism at the bottom of the Gulf. Reportedly, since the accident that took 11 lives and created the oil spill, BP has gone from being No. 1 in its category in the brand-loyalty index maintained by Brand Keys — to dead last. Its plummeting stock price has become another glaring reflection of how quickly the public is turning away from BP.
Part of BP’s long-term problem will be that the company has gone so far out of its way over the last several years to position itself as the “green” oil company, with a sunny new logo composed of green and yellow; a new slogan, “Beyond Petroleum,” and the playing up of the BP acronym instead of its name; and its boasts about alternative-energy initiatives such as wind farms.
All of that seems laughably hollow now as BP is unmasked as – gasp! – basically an oil company, with a huge challenge at the moment that only an oil-producing corporation could face.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 29th and subsequent oil spill "casts a harsh light on BP's business strategy, which is predicated on being a leader at the industry's frontiers—drilling the world's deepest wells in the Gulf of Mexico, scouring for oil in the Arctic, squeezing natural gas from the rocks of Oman."
But the epochal problem for the BP brand actually goes way beyond whether it ever really was, or will be, sufficiently green. Whether it does some solar stuff here and there or not, British Petroleum must fight to not join the ranks of all-time corporate villains, a list that includes fellow oil giant Exxon Mobil, which achieved infamy for Alaska's Valdez disaster in 1989.
Arguably, other members of this "Brands Under Fire" club include Union Carbide because of the Bhopal explosion in 1984, and Dow Chemical, which was targeted by protesters during the Vietnam War as the sole supplier of napalm to the U.S. military.
BP’s brand won’t fall because corporate marketers never should have positioned itself as green; today’s media and consumer ethos almost demand green values and sustainable business practices, which can lead to charges of so-called greenwashing.
As the Wall Street Journal also points out, BP CEO Tony Hayward in fact already had "dialed back" from the green focus of his predecessor, Lord Browne, who introduced the "Beyond Petroleum" tagline and "emphasized BP's push into renewable energy sources."
Hayward, instead, has been focused on increasing production, cutting costs and bringing the focus back to the petroleum part of its name, not alternative sources of energy.
While Hayward is adamant that BP will clean up this spill — "We are going to defend the beaches. We will fix this," he told the WSJ — the bigger challenge may very well be cleaning up and restoring the BP brand.