Over a Barrel

Just as BP promotes itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” the company’s ever-widening oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is now beyond branding—and well into the realm of tragedy. All the same, BP has become a kind of marketing test case, and industry experts are watching the company closely to find out where the limits of brand reimaging lie.

The spill, which could potentially eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez’s in terms of its ecological impact, is at the moment providing an ironic commentary to BP’s green-tinged advertising. The question is: When the present catastrophe is finally over, will BP still be able to claim it’s beyond petroleum, or will the accident mark the end of such positioning in the category and put other would-be green advertisers on notice?

Critics and branding gurus say something that drastic is unlikely, but they’re split on the amount of damage BP is likely to incur. One school of thought is that by declaring itself a thought leader on eco issues, BP raised the stakes with environmentalists and consumers and thus had no further to fall. But some argue that BP’s advertising built up enough brand equity and goodwill to ensure it will win back the public’s trust—assuming it handles the crisis well. (Reps from BP could not be reached for comment on this story.)

In the short term, the data seems to support the former. Since the company once known as British Petroleum launched its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign in 2000, it’s been No. 1 on Brand Keys’ Customer Engagement Loyalty Index for the gasoline category. But in polls with consumers after the spill, BP dropped to dead last in the category, behind even Exxon. Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff said that consumers are six times more likely to give a brand they like the benefit of the doubt (for instance, when Apple’s iPhone had connectivity issues, most consumers blamed carrier AT&T, not Apple). But thanks to the recent rupture in the Alaska Pipeline, a fatal fire in Texas and now the current debacle, BP’s well of goodwill has run dry.

Passikoff predicts the change in sentiment will harm BP’s bottom line. Thirty percent of consumers, he said, will go out of their way not to buy from BP now. He attributes some of the avoidance to the brand’s positioning. “If you talk the talk, you can’t blow up an oil rig,” Passikoff said. “Exxon always understood it had a PR problem, but they hadn’t gotten up on their high green horse to say ‘We are the protectors of the environment.’”

But Ted Marzilli, svp and global managing director for YouGov’s BrandIndex, which polls 5,000 consumers daily about their brand preferences, doesn’t believe BP will suffer at the pump. “I’m not sure somebody drives past a BP station to fill up at Exxon or Shell because they’re angry,” Marzilli said. BrandIndex’s data shows that consumers’ general impression of BP is still positive, even though they’re hearing more bad news about the company.

To Andrea Katz, who goes by the title of chief ideonista for brand strategy boutique Ideon, that enduring faith is a sign that BP’s Beyond Petroleum campaign has done its job. “Its brand equity gives it protection in a crisis,” Katz said, citing a reserve of goodwill with consumers. “Their green branding has built up an equity they can now use.”

Since BP introduced the campaign, which was created by Ogilvy & Mather and Landor Associates, it has served as a Rorschach test for one’s political beliefs. Many branding gurus saw marketing genius in the way BP had harnessed a key category weakness and turned it into a positive. But, despite BP’s recognition of global warming and its substantial past investments in alternative energy sources, environmentalists have pointed to Beyond Petroleum as a state-of-the-art example of greenwashing.