BP: the worst brand positioning mistake since the Holy Roman Empire?

For 60+ days, I’ve avoided writing a post about BP. I’ve been devastated, as I’m sure many of you have, by what has been happening in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve all been inundated with news and stories, most of them depressing, about real lives—people, animal, plant—altered forever by the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Holy Roman Empire = neither holy, nor Roman, nor empire. BP = not beyond petroleum.

Why think about brand damage when there is so much catastrophic real damage still happening as I write this post? But after having several people ask me about it over the last few weeks, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts as well as some of the articles I’ve been reading about BP’s brand positioning debacle. It may prove to be one of the most important, albeit sad, brand positioning lessons ever.

My view? Not since the Holy Roman Empire has there been a greater misalignment between brand promise and brand experience than we see today with BP.

Dig deep into your European history memory. Not the Roman Empire with all the togas, nice buildings, gods, and gladiators. I’m talking about the really crappy one that emerged in the Middle Ages and which Voltaire famously described as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

If the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, BP has certainly proven itself to not be Beyond Petroleum.

So how did this happen?

In 2000, British Petroleum hired one of the top advertising & PR agencies in the world, Ogilvy & Mather, to help them attempt a global brand transformation following the acquisition of Amoco and a few other small organizations. Their goal was to reposition BP “as transcending the oil sector, delivering top-line growth while remaining innovative, progressive, environmentally responsible and performance-driven.”

Why did I put this goal in quotes?

Because I took it directly from the BP “success story” which is still up on Ogilvy & Mather’s website (someone might want to get that down…update: 9-27-10: it looks like now they have!). The story goes on to say that the launch of the new brand position “far exceeded expectations” and resulted in high brand credibility and favorability scores and two (!) PR Week Campaign of the Year awards.

A job well done.

Except BP’s new brand promise wasn’t even in the same ballpark as its brand experience. Rather than dive into a full analysis here, I’ll point you to some great posts I found already highlighting the brand promise/brand experience gaps:

Rebranding: Not Beyond Credibility

Will BP Clean Up Its Act After the Big Spill

The BP Brand’s Avoidable Fail

BP’s Hayward is Part of a Much Larger, and Expensive Problem

BP Before the Oil Spill: An Environmentally Friendly Company?

And, saving the best for last, here is a recently rediscovered (and rather spooky) mea culpa that appeared in The New York Times 4 years ago, entitled Beyond Propaganda, and written by one of the members of the Ogilvy & Mather creative team that worked on the original rebranding campaign.

A few key facts from these articles that blew me away:

  • Over the past five years, BP invested about $4 billion into alternative energy. Which sounds like a lot until you realize that BP made over $14 billion last year alone.
  • Over the same period BP was dinged for 760 safety violations, Exxon (another reviled petroleum brand) had just one.
  • In 2009, Tony Hayward (BP’s CEO) said fossil fuels will still satisfy 80% of world energy needs in 2030. At that rate, when do we expect to truly be beyond petroleum?
  • And finally the kicker: 98% of BP’s revenues still come from oil and gas as of the first quarter of this year. I’m not sure that could be described as “transcending the oil sector”.

My view? The BP brand is dead. No brand can survive a positioning disaster like this one. According to one report, the BP brand has lost $1B in value and the company’s market valuation has plunged $87.5 billion in the last two months. BP has also made it on a list of the 11 brands that will disappear in 2011.

It’s hard to find the good news. I could care less about the death of the BP brand, and I wish that was the only death BP had on its hands.

Was this post helpful?

If so, you can find more tips about how to build your brand effectively in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).

Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
| Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


2 thoughts on “BP: the worst brand positioning mistake since the Holy Roman Empire?

  1. Pinpointing BP’s Pitfalls: Eight Ways to Reconnect After a Disaster

    Read the full article here:

    Posted by herman | June 24, 2010, 8:24 am


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention BP: the worst brand positioning mistake since the Holy Roman Empire? « Dark Matter Matters -- - June 23, 2010

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