The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico got me thinking about the brand image implications for BP and, more generally, about the need for brand authenticity in brand identity exercises. A decade ago, BP called in a leading global brand consultancy firm for a makeover. Well, nothing new in this — companies periodically embark on such an exercise to update their brand logo and identity.
For brand consultancy firms, it is an easy and lucrative line of business.The consultancy firm most probably did what one does in such exercises — spoke to important stakeholders of the firm, especially the BP top management, employees and dealers, to ascertain what the brand stood for and what it aspired to be.
Successful brand updates also require that the brand tap into the current and emerging societal values since large companies require what is called a “license to operate” from society. As such there is a need to show one is doing more than simply serving customers — being a positive force in the larger community. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the oil (or any natural resource extraction) business where companies bid in two markets — the downstream market to sell oil to consumers and the upstream market to obtain licenses from countries to explore for oil. Finally, ‘nirvana’ for any branding exercise is, if beyond being relevant and responsible, the corporate brand could also be positioned as being unique in the industry. Over the past three decades, environmental stewardship is being increasingly demanded by populations of the developed world. No surprise here. The famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his model of human motivation had placed “self actualisation” as the highest human need after one fulfils physiological, safety, social and self esteem needs. With increasing economic standards, consumers in the West are demanding companies become socially responsible, especially with respect to the environment. Oil companies, being in the business of fossil fuels, are in some sense the whipping boys for the economics of consumption triumphing over responsibility for the environment. For the oil industry, this is a source of great frustration. Imagine being the CEO of a big oil company and having to defend the oil business in every interview and public forum.
The result of the brand identity exercise was that BP decided with its brand consultants that it would unveil a new “green” brand image. BP was now written in a wonderful green font and accompanied by a new corporate logo — a stylised flower blooming with green and yellow petals — as well as a new corporate slogan: Beyond Petroleum. Predictably, this exercise concluded with a fat check and industry awards for the brand consultancy firm. They must be magicians if they can convert a big oil company into being about the green environment.
But folks, it was a sleight of the hand! Oil has been and is a ‘dirty’ business. Consumers may not want to see it and oil executives may not want to accept it, but the reality remains unchanged. The outcome of the brand identity exercise did not reflect this reality. There was no brand authenticity and it is almost as if BP wished they were in another business. But they were not. Oil drilling is a risky and dangerous business.The BP oil spill is the tip of the iceberg. Because it took place in America under the gaze of the world media and not in Nigeria or Congo, it received tremendous publicity.
The underside of this business has always been, and continues to be, ugly. In the past, oil giants were known for funding the overthrow of governments to obtain oil drilling contracts. Today, they fight any attempt that moves the industry towards transparency of exploration contracts. Most populations of oil-rich countries (Norway being the exception) would love to understand how the contracts given to large oil companies for exploitation of the oil resources has not resulted in the wealth flowing to the general population. In fact, academic research talks mostly about the “oil curse” — the richer the country is in natural resources, especially oil, the poorer it is in political freedoms and economic growth.
Previously, consumers demanded that brands be relevant and unique. As consumers, especially in the developed world, increasingly demand social responsibility from brands, companies are rushing to position themselves on this frontier. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Being socially responsible is only sustainable if it is authentic. A brand cannot stand for something it is not. Branding is a delicate balancing act between what one is and what one wishes to be.
Nirmalya Kumar is Professor of Marketing and co-director of Aditya Birla India Centre at London Business School. He has authored four books on marketing. His most recent book is titled India’s Global Powerhouses