As gulf cleanup continues, BP will also struggle to clean up its brand

As BP reduces the size of the "vessels of opportunity" program, fishermen who work in more remote areas are expressing concern about oil they have recently spotted in places where boats have not been deployed.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

HOUSTON -- The protesters have stopped coming here to wave angry signs in front of BP's large office campus. The boycotts of BP gas stations are tapering off, too -- both signs that the energy company's plug of the spewing Gulf of Mexico oil well is quieting its loudest critics.

The shouting may be over, but rebuilding the company's badly tarnished brand will prove a much harder task -- one that advertising and oil industry experts say could be nearly as daunting as stopping the oil that gushed into the gulf for more than three months.

"It's probably the most notorious branding crisis in memory," said Tom Zara, director of corporate branding at Interbrand.

After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April, BP went on the air with television ads and bought a series of full-page ads in The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other papers to position itself as an imperfect but responsible corporation committed to the cleanup of the gulf. The company has spent $55.8 million on television and print advertising so far this year, according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks ad spending. (The total for all of last year was $80 million.)

But as one of Washington's top corporate lobbying forces, BP took flak for paying lobbyists, so the company cut back that spending to only $3.3 million so far this year, compared with $8.2 million in the first six months of 2009.

BP has been bouncing back already in the place where its brand meets consumers -- at its gas stations. After the spill, sales dropped off 40 to 50 percent at some stations on the Gulf Coast, but in most cases business declines have leveled off to about 10 percent on the gulf and less than 5 percent in other parts of the country, said John Kleine, executive director of the BP Amoco Marketers Association, which represents the station owners.

Kleine, who calls the station owners "investors" in BP's brand (their only link with the company is contracts to buy gasoline), said they began facing angry protests after the spill and turned to BP for help. The company gave them signs and took out print and radio advertisements emphasizing that the stations were locally owned and operated. At some stations BP helped the owners do customer appreciation campaigns with free car washes and cups of coffee. Corporate staffers flew in to stand in driveways and listen to customers' concerns, Kleine said.

"Where the owner is known in the community, there is a less significant impact," Kleine said. "I think BP has to recognize that the local face is really a value to their brand even more so than anybody thought."

Company's evolution

BP, which began selling gasoline in Britain in the 1920s, has long been a company that cared a lot about its name -- and changed it several times. After it bought Amoco in 1998, the company British Petroleum to become BP Amoco, then two years later shortened it to BP, to signify that it was more than a petroleum company and emphasize its investments in alternative energy.

The company dropped the shield and torch that had represented British Petroleum and Amoco and adopted a logo called the Helios, which looks like a sunflower bursting with petals. BP says the design is named after the Greek sun god and represents "dynamic energy in all its forms."

The company's Web site declares that its brand can be summed up in two words: "beyond petroleum." Its executives have preached the importance of "social responsibility on a global scale" at major business conferences.

As British Petroleum, it won the support of some environmental groups in 1997 when it announced that it agreed with scientists that global warming stems from an excess of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released through the burning of fossil fuels. It pledged to greatly increase its investment in solar power. Still, other environmentalists, including Greenpeace, called such investments a relatively insignificant part of the company's portfolio. In 2000, more than 10,000 students from seven Ivy League schools signed a pledge refusing to accept jobs at BP Amoco because the company had pursued permission to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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