SARASOTA - BP is the joke at our local comedy club. The joke won't work in print, but the line involved something about bombs and how the BP owner was wishing he had purchased some other filling station brand like Racetrack. The beaches are still pristine here in this part of Florida, but if they turn black, or yellow, or whatever color they turn, BP won't be just a joke, but will become one of those forever tainted brands, like Edsel or Corvair or Enron.
We guess it was only in our minds but....BP, with its Britishness, had something on the American oil brands. It was BP. It was Persia. It was at one-time H.M.'s socialist government itself. It was the petrol company that did all sorts of drilling in exotic lands, and brought it all home to fill up Britain's MGs and Morrises.
But in the last decade, as BP purchased ARCO and Amoco, it remade itself as un-British, moving from that famed shield of British Petroleum into some sort of green sun, an oil company that was so environmentally conscious that it was Beyond Petroleum.
Chevron Valued Texaco After Merger
As many of the former Standard Oil companies merged, many brands were preserved. For instance Chevron (NYSE:CVX) realized the value in Texaco when it merged, and Exxon (NYSE:XOM) adopted the name of Mobil. But BP didn't. While BP preserved Atlantic Richfield as a retail brand on the West Coast, the Amoco brand pretty much finally disappeared this year.
The Amoco brand heritage was phenomenal; at times they were even civic minded. In the 1950s they published handsome and authoritative reference guides to historic houses up and down the East Coast, including one of Boston.
With the new enviro BP, the only image that Americans had of BP was not the "BP" of the Home Counties and Empire that they might have encountered in Malta or the U.K. on vacation, but some newly created environmental company that somehow made "energy" under a sun-shaped logo. That's all fine to re-brand yourself as some sort of cousin to the World Wildlife Fund, but you kind of need to really be "beyond petroleum" to actually be "beyond petroleum." And you have to be successful at it over time. With the spill it is even more damaging that they advertised themselves as green but then failed to deliver in the worst way.
Now, BP has plenty of meaning, but not the sort they might like (Bad People, etc.). One Facebook profile I saw uses a BP logo with the phrase "Bitch Please." Any brand equity is gone; station owners here in Southwest Florida are having to explain on TV news stories that while they might have BP on the sign, they don't even always sell BP gas. That's a sure sign that a brand is tainted.
Of course, a tainted brand is the last thing BP officials should be worried about right now. But worrying they are. There are stories about them restricting press access to wildlife sites, and are quite canny about bringing in a few hundred workers to clean beaches when the President comes around. They are throwing full-page ad money around the Gulf's weekly newspapers at a righteous clip, and recently announced half a billion for research. We can debate the meaning of all this and the spin; the reality is that they must be freaking scared.
Perhaps the best PR advice is to stop trying to manage your PR, and get to the business of fixing the leak. Because if you don't do that soon, you won't have much of a company left. It made me realize that if this thing goes on too much longer, the company will have to rethink what it is all about, including its name and how it does business.
Irrespective of the oil spill, its brand equity was declining. James Gregory, of the corporate branding consultancy Core Brand, wrote that because of dropping ad expenditures in recent years, BP's brand equity was down from $19.9 Billion in 2008 to $14.3 Billion in 2009. Writes Gregory:
There is no getting around the fact that every dead turtle, fish and bird that washes up on a Gulf Coast shore over the foreseeable future will be blamed on BP. The media and the public will be relentless on these issues.
Libya 1974 or USA 2010?
Last week, I saw an Alternet story on "Ten things you don't want to know about BP spill." In it was the link to the website SeizeBP.com, which advocates the seizure of the assets of the company to pay damages to those affected. That's some extreme stuff.
No matter how bad the Exxon Valdez situation got, I don't recall even a partially serious effort to nationalize Exxon for the U.S. government. There might have been some Earth First-types saying that sort of thing, but no one was paying attention.
Last week, there were students on the Florida statehouse steps with banners asking the government to seize the company. No one in the establishment of Florida was annoyed, no one thought twice about it.
How much will the spill cost? Let's naively assume that the hole gets plugged soon. After the spill, the moral debt will be tremendous. Legal liability has gone out the door; no one will give BP a quarter until all losses (and more imagined) are reimbursed. How does one budget for things when you get a letter from the administration telling them that they are "accountable to the American public for the full clean up of this spill and all the economic loss caused by the spill and related events." I wonder how many trial lawyers and Justice Department lawyers does it take to pick apart the American unit of a multinational? Lawyers are leaner and hungrier these days than the sharks that used to prowl the Gulf. At least tobacco lawyers get to say that the victim chose to smoke. Does "related events" include advertising to bring people back to the beach? What's the price of a reef? Does it include vocational retraining for fishing captains? Yes to all. Just imagine being in that room as BP has to cut those checks.
Do they dump the BP brand? Gas station brands don't mean much anymore; it's all become generic and commodity. So I would doubt that local station owners are suffering that much now, except for the one in St. Pete who had 40 protesters out front. After all, Citgo is owned by a commie dictator, and we don't hold that against our local Citgo dockmaster. Gas is gas, and we need it. But brand names do come into play when someone is choosing what gas to sell. Do I flag myself as BP, Chevron, Mobil, or Shell (NYSE:RDS.A)? Well, we know one brand that won't do. BP.
Do they revert to Amoco? At the BP on Tamiami Trail closest to my house, almost all traces of the Amoco name have disappeared. All except for one little corner of each pump. The high-test fuel at the station is still called Amoco Ultimate. I assume it's merely to keep the trademark to the brand alive; if BP continues to use Amoco even in small situations, it keeps the rights to the brand. Perhaps that might be the answer. If the company can survive, it can rename itself Amoco.
Oh wait. If the government takes it, it WILL be Amoco.
Of course, no one can predict what will happen. Perhaps the next golf ball and mud trick will work, the managing of news crews will continue, and BP is just astute enough to keep the checks coming to the shrimpers and fishing captains who are out of work.
Disclosure: No positions