When Tony Hayward gave his final press briefing shortly before departing as Chief Executive of BP he said that BP had shown itself to be “a model of corporate social responsibility” but it was “not a great PR success”.
On the face of it BP has done most things right: they have managed to cap the worst of the spill, they managed to keep most of the oil from washing up on the beaches, have paid over $300 million in compensation to the US locals whose livelihoods have been affected; So why then the furore and criticism heaped on BP and its CEO?
A failure of authenticity
I believe that the failure was one of authenticity; a failure on the part of BP leaders, past and present, to be genuine in their support for the positioning of the brand. BP, although embracing ‘green’ credentials and purporting to be the fuel brand most closely identified with sustainability, when put to the test drilling for oil off the Florida coast, seemed to act first and foremost as an energy company concerned with maximizing its profits rather than an experience brand concerned with delivering on its promise.
Unfortunately, Hayward has taken the rap for his previous boss, Lord Browne, who when Chief Executive drove the company to earn ever greater returns for shareholders.
We are just finishing the research for our new book ‘Bold’ and one of the characteristics we have seen shared by the brands we have researched is authenticity. You can’t succeed unless you are genuine, true to yourself and absolutely honest with your customers. This is challenging for those people in business who believe that as long as you promote 5 corporate values on your web site (usually the same ones your competitors promote as well), it’ll be enough to get by. And as long as you say the right things to shareholders and customers in your annual report, advertising or PR about CSR, then, short of committing a criminal act, it doesn’t much matter the extent to which you actually practice what you preach as long as the profits continue to roll in.
Authenticity comes from people’s own values
Authentic companies are run and largely staffed by people who care passionately about what they do because they see it as an extension of their own values. And that means when you make a promise for your brand you have to deliver it: you can’t force it, fake it or fudge it.
By forcing it, we mean that sense of trying too hard to be something you’re not. The Geek Squad has its competitors who try to take a similar approach but it doesn’t require too much first-hand experience of those competitors to know that the values come from the advertising rather than the heart.
By faking it we mean when your marketing department see an opportunity to align your brand with something like sustainability, for example, but management continue to focus primarily on profitability and the behaviour of the organisation is aligned with this focus. Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore in their book ‘Authenticity’ make the point that customers can smell a fake a mile off. Consumers demand authenticity from their brands today and especially from the people who work for them.
By fudging it we mean those moments of ‘on the one hand but on the other’ that brands often fall into – promising you the earth in the headline copy only to caveat their offers in the small print. Brands like O2 have opened up the telecommunications market by introducing transparency and ‘no strings’ products like its ‘Simplicity’ offer.
So what should BP have done? As well as taking the necessary engineering steps which it did well, it should also have seen this as an unfortunate, but wonderful, opportunity to dramatise its brand promise: to really make its green credentials apparent. As well as fixing the leak deep on the ocean bed, which was largely unseen by customers, it should have over-indexed its public response. It is hard to hate an organisation when it has a ‘face’ to it. Now BP would say, perhaps rightly, that is what they did; they got their people involved in the effort, but what I am talking about here is a massive effort from hundreds if not thousands of BP branded employees working in the community.
What Patagonia did
Patagonia, the environmentally friendly clothing brand, had employees working on the beaches (wearing Patagonia clothing of course) because they care deeply about the environment . Patagonia also sponsors the ‘Louisiana Bucket Brigade’ a voluntary organisation set up to support the environment and deal with oil spills.
Yvon Chouinard, the Patagonia founder, had this to say in an interview in 2004,
“I’m not in the business to make clothes. I’m not in the business to make more money for myself, for Christ’s sake. This is the reason Patagonia exists — to put into action the recommendations I read about in books to avoid environmental collapse. That’s the reason I’m in business — to try to clean up our own act, and try to influence other companies to do the right thing, and try to influence our customers to do the right thing. So we’re not going to change. They can go buy from somewhere else if they don’t like it”
Now that is an authentic leader.
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