Lisa Merriam

Repairing BP Brand Should NOT Top New CEO’s To-Do List

BP’s new Chief Executive Robert Dudley has a long “to do” list. One thing that should not be on that list: Repairing the BP brand.

Yes, the BP brand is wounded and they need a strong brand to succeed. Any effort to fix the brand today will fail. BP’s over-focus on its image has been one of the firm’s ongoing mistakes since the Gulf explosion. BP needs to clean up the spill and clean up its act before it can even begin to think about cleaning up its brand.

BP spent billions over the past decade to persuade regulators, green groups and consumers that it stood for a world “beyond petroleum”. That sunny, green image never matched reality. The vast majority of BP’s earnings always came from petroleum. Before a single drop of oil seeped into the Gulf of Mexico, BP operations were a far cry from the green fields and wind farms in its ads. California charged BP with falsifying inspection reports at its Los Angeles refinery. BP paid the state $100 million and settled out of court. BP’s Alaska Pipeline maintenance problems caused several major oil spills with criminal charges and millions in fines. Blame more cut corners for the explosion at BP’s Texas refinery that killed 15 and injured 170 others. As the oil flow slows in the Gulf, headlines condemn BP for lobbying to release the Lockerbie bomber in order to secure lucrative Libyan oil contracts. The gap between what BP did and what BP said created a weak brand that provided no reservoir of goodwill when disaster hit.

In contrast, consider Toyota. In a public relations disaster of its own, Toyota weathered months of bad news and executive missteps. Customers stayed loyal. They had years of experience with Toyota quality and perceived the company kept its brand promise. Because the gap between performance and brand promise was small, the brand is recovering. Toyota’s June U.S. market share was only down .9% compared to last year. The Consumer Reports 2010 Car Brand Survey conducted during the crisis, showed Toyota as the best in total brand perception. Edmunds reported Toyota purchase intent fell to 9.7% in February 2010 during Toyota’s testimony before Congress. With incentives announced in March, that number soared to 18%, averaging around 16% since. New Toyota sales numbers expected August 3rd will likely still reflect the recalls (with new ones announced this week), yet overall, the Toyota brand remains strong.

What BP has forgotten is that brands are earned not made. BP’s brand is not its name, logo or ad campaign. BP’s brand is its reputation. As of today, BP has earned a lousy one.
They face a daunting and long-term brand rebuilding project. A flowery new positioning statement, pretty logo and lots of PR won’t help. Instead, here are three steps Mr. Dudley should take before he can even think of fixing the brand.

Stop the gaffes. No more talk about “small people”, staged clean up crews for photo ops or blowing $50m on ads pledging to “make this right”. Damage control and spinning exacerbate the insincere image.

Build a verifiable track record. That means transparent, honest and helpful actions and decisions every day at every facility. It will take time and dramatic organizational change.

A new reality. Lastly, after the company emerges from the reorganization, operational fixes, and legal fall-out from the Gulf spill, BP will be a very different organization. Executives should take a long, hard look at the company and build a new BP brand that reflects that reality. As seductive as being green and running ads about wind farms may seem, if it isn’t real, it can’t be the brand.

Reputations take a lifetime to earn and seconds to lose. They can’t be restored in a moment. Earning back a good name takes years of patient effort. Here’s hoping that BP chooses the long-term approach.

More on BP:
BP Disengenuously Branding
BP Social Media Slip Ups: BP Can’t Tweet
NPR Interview: On BP

More on When Brands Hit Trouble:

Crash Branding–Brand Communication in a Crisis
Viral Marketing Can Make Your Brand Sick
AIG Name Change to AIU