Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide (Jeez you’d think these guys would have learned a bit about crisis management by now) still has a very pretty blurb on its website about the work it did back in 1999 to help rebrand the oil company BP.
Quote: “Our recommendation was to position BP as a new type of global energy company — one that confronts difficult issues like the conflict between energy and environmental needs and takes action beyond what is expected”.
Which makes it sound, possibly erroneously, definitely hubristically, that the whole idea of creating the Beyond Petroleum ‘brand’ for BP (this went way beyond a tagline) was invented at Ogilvy. In other words this very wonderful idea didn’t come from inside BP. Of course this could be wrong. Lots of agencies boast of things that are untrue, partially true or at least un-proveable. Allegedly.
But it certainly makes sense.
Since the Beyond Petroleum brand and multi-billion dollar global marketing campaign launched in 2001 to enormous media fanfare (and public skepticism) it’s become painfully clear (shock!) that this particular corporate rebrand/relaunch had a purely marketing rationale, at least as far as the BP C-Suite was concerned.
What was presented to the world was a shiny new company, one whose mission was to steer (ha!) the world away from filthy old oil towards one powered by clean energy. But sadly the evidence of BP’s performance and behavior over the past decade paints a very different picture. From spills and cover ups, explosions and deaths to corruption, human rights violations, scandal and bribery. The yawning gulf (ha!) between image and reality really ought to win the company some kind of award (perhaps they’d donate the prize to cleaning up Louisiana beaches).
But the point of this article isn’t to excoriate BP (although it’s kind of hard not too). Rather it’s to point out the absolute absurdity of trying to convince an informed public that a massive multinational company, operating in a dirty (in so many ways) industry, can possibly live up to an image created by some over-fevered imaginations in a PR agency. An image that’s so obviously completely unmoored from reality. It really was and is the most utterly incredible bullshit.
It’s possible that Sir John Browne, Toby Hayward (the latest CEO) and the senior team at BP are honorable men genuinely trying to do the right thing. I’m sure they’d love it if BP could replace the revenue it makes from oil with wind or solar power. And maybe one day it will. But for them to imagine that Beyond Petroleum was anything other that a wishful fantasy during a decade where research into non-oil based fuel solutions topped out at 4% of BP’s R&D budget – while at the same time it was making hundreds of billions from oil – smacks of a massive reality disconnect. They surely must have realized that this day would come.
Please let this be a teachable moment. Companies like BP must understand that clever marketing cannot hide or disguise the reality of corporate behavior, and to even try reeks of dishonesty. If BP wants to be perceived as a different kind of company, real change needs to occur. Change that’s driven from the top, not invented at the PR agency.