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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.

BP continued to try to move beyond those labels, reviewing its brand positioning and carrying out regular research to understand how the brand performed in various markets, according to company documents.

The brand is all over the company's stately Houston-area offices, which are home to the largest concentration of BP employees in the world. The place is decorated with the BP logo's bright shades of green and yellow -- colors the company has used in advertisements to play up its interest in the environment and the future.

In the past few months, those colors have been splattered with mud and black paint in protests and an anonymous critic adopted the Twitter handle BPGlobalPR to sarcastically deride the company. The tweeter has more than 190,000 followers. Similarly, about 50 protesters from the activist group Code Pink, some dressed as sea creatures and others wearing only signs and black paint symbolic of the spilled oil, descended on the Houston offices in late May to criticize the company, attract headlines and malign the BP logo.

No one is arguing that BP doesn't deserve the public relations bruising, said David Kotok, who monitors the oil industry as chief investment officer for Cumberland Advisors. Cumberland estimates that BP will pay out $50 billion to $80 billion in fines, legal damages and settlements related to the oil spill, but even after those checks are written there is still a big unknown in terms of a brand comeback.

"There is a human and psychological factor that is impossible to measure," Kotok said. " 'BP' becomes the identification of the perpetrator of the trauma and it's a long-term relationship damaged."

The Tylenol case study

Other companies associated with disasters have bounced back. Tylenol rescued its brand after a 1982 incident in which someone added cyanide to bottles of pills, causing seven deaths in the Chicago area. Johnson & Johnson, which owns the brand, reacted by trying first to protect consumers, then the product. The makers of Tylenol recalled millions of bottles right away, airing alerts warning people not to take the capsules and setting up a hotline, said Doug McIntyre, chief executive of Cult Marketing. Then, at a news conference, the company introduced "triple safety seal packaging," making Tylenol the first product in its industry to use a glued box, a plastic seal over the neck of the bottle and a foil seal over the mouth. Consumers returned.

On the other hand, Exxon's public relations moves after the Valdez oil spill in 1989 are used as a case study in bad PR -- the company's chief executive did not show up at the site of the spill for nearly a week, then initially refused to take responsibility for it, McIntyre recalled. At the time, 20 percent of Exxon customers said they would no longer buy gasoline from the company, and 3 to 7 percent followed through, according to news reports.

Public opinion about BP has become only slightly less negative since the start of the spill. In July, the number of people who thought BP should be brought up on criminal charges dropped to 56 percent from 64 percent a month earlier, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The vast majority thought the company had not handled the spill well.

"I think consumers forgive and forget," McIntyre said. "The big question is: Does [BP] care? Do they really care?"

BP spokesman Robert Wine said the company's main focus is to remain around the Gulf Coast until "the job is done . . . long after the last of the oil has turned up . . . over the coming months and longer. Rebuilding the brand isn't a marketing exercise. It's about rebuilding the gulf over the long term."

Staff writer Dan Eggen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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