Beyond Pollution: a brand plan for BP
Rahm Emanuel famously observed, "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Sage advice, if you happen to govern. Crisis is unique in that it incorporates the urgency of now with the need for bold action. But what do you do if you're on the other side of the crisis? What if it's your fault?
If you're a leader, all too often, you duck and cover. Witness BP. Missing an historic opportunity to show through their response the compassionate future we'd been promised since their rebranding, BP's shoved their brand--and the rest of the industry--into a black, murky, poisonous hole. They wanted to stand for "Beyond Petroleum." Today, they'd settle for "Beyond Pollution." There's no need to dwell on what BP should do from hereon out. Everyone's clear on the mechanical problem they need to fix and the environmental disaster they have to pay for. As for the external loss of confidence they'll suffer, there's no near-term remedy. The tough times have just begun. And from an economic standpoint, that's more than fair.
But what about BP's human capital? I've had the opportunity to spend time at BP's flagship corporate headquarters in the UK. I've seen BP's African headquarters in Cape Town, too. They're open, beautiful spaces, powered by solar power, full of wood, bathed in natural light. I don't know what their level of LEED certification is, but I would bet it's platinum. And during a number of years working with clients in the energy industry, I've met and spoken with dozens, if not hundreds, of BP employees and former employees. These are good people. In our conversations, it was clear they all held the belief that BP's buildings and marketing were leading indicators of the company's commitment to a future "beyond petroleum" in common. More importantly--and more interestingly--they understood that the world's energy needs are massive, and that there's no realistic solution to replacing petroleum today. So for them---and, I'd hazard, for virtually everyone working in energy production--the world's not quite so black and white as it is for the rest of us. If you're not in energy it makes perfect sense to fume at the massive disaster in the Gulf, conveniently forget the Niger delta, and drive to work in (petrol-powered) cars. But if you work in energy, you know that every energy source has consequences. And particularly if you're young and idealistic, you're likely to have believed BP's sincere in its "beyond petroleum" aspiration. But today, chances are you no longer do.
So what's a brand to do? Besides setting aside massive amounts of money (after some visible arm-twisting) what can BP do to reassure the workforce that this was an isolated incident? In my view, three things must happen.
- Tony Hayward & Co. resign. Hayward's performed exceptionally poorly since the crisis hit. But that's less important than that it happened at all and that there were clearly shortcuts taken. On his watch. Shareholders may forgive him if BP's stock surges, but the workforce can never trust his leadership again. His resignation should be followed by resignations of a significant number of leaders who connect the operational dots between Hayward and the Gulf. BP sells or rebrands. BP has only two choices. Sell itself to a clean brand (Shell would give the best cover). Or find religion. In the near term, my guess is BP will remain too toxic to touch--especially for Shell, who will think long and hard about the ongoing damage Texaco's environmental mess in Equador did to Chevron's brand. In that case, the only viable choice is to rebrand itself--as really, truly, hopelessly and forever more beyond petroleum. And there's only one way to do this...
- BP's develops a people brand. Never mind PR: no Americans born before 2005 will ever trust BP's executive leadership, their operational sophistication, their science or skill again. And BP simply can't afford to walk away from the US marketplace. The US is ready for tough, honest talk about energy. But we reject it from politicians, liberals, environmentalists, and conservatives. We won't reject it from the people of BP--provided they're given total, complete control of the brand.
What would a people brand for BP look like? I don't yet know. It would have to be based in a balance between decisive action, clear targets, demonstrable outcomes, on the one hand, and personal accountability, contrition, resolution and moral courage, on the other. It would require honest, straight talk--think the T. Boone Pickens Plan--with a strong dose of humility and shared sacrifice. And--most importantly--it would have to be built on the back of an absolutely massive financial and technological response to the Gulf disaster. To all my friends at BP: you've bult a brand we've been desperate to believe in. Please, don't let this crisis go to waste.
Posted on 17 June 2010 by David Kippen
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