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 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 of Mexico for more than three months.
“It’s probably the most notorious branding crisis in memory,” said Tom Zara, director of corporate branding at Interbrand.
BP went on air with television ads after its Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April to position the company as an imperfect but responsible corporation committed to the cleanup of the gulf. It bought full-page ads in The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other papers.
But as one of Washington’s top corporate lobbying forces, BP took flak for that kind of spending, so the company cut back and paid lobbyists 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 (whose only link with the company is a contract to buy gasoline), said the station operators began facing angry protests after the spill and turned to the company for help. BP gave them signs and drew up print and radio advertising emphasizing that the stations were locally owned and operated. At some stations BP helped the owners do customer appreciation campaigns with free carwashes and cups of coffee. People from the corporate office flew in to stand in driveways and listen to customers, 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 that anybody thought.”
BP, which began selling petrol 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 dropped British Petroleum to become BP Amoco and 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 the Helios as its logo, 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 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, mocked BP’s green stances, calling those 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. Other interest groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council listed the company among its “kingpins of carbon.”
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 dotted with the company logo’s bright shades of green and yellow — colors that 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 oil spill, descended on the company’s Houston headquarters 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, lawsuits 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 deliberately tainted pills caused seven deaths in the Chicago area in 1982. The company’s executives reacted by first trying to protect consumers and then the product. Tylenol recalled millions of bottles right away, airing alerts warning people not to take the capsules and established a hotline, said Doug McIntyre, chief executive of Cult Marketing. Then its chief executive introduced “triple safety seal packaging” at a press conference, 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.
BP could similarly be restored over time, but it has to do more than fix the damage from the oil spill, said Martin Lindstrom, a corporate image adviser and author of “Buyology.” “They have to do something positive, something huge that will create headlines in major newspapers all over the world,” he said.
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.”
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 then 3 to 7 percent followed through, according to news reports.
“I think consumers forgive and forget,” McIntyre said. “The big question is: Does [BP] care? Do they really care?”
This oil spill could forever mark BP and other big oil companies as polluters that failed to care for the environment, Lindstrom said. Eventually, technology will yield alternative fuels and today’s energy producers could be shunned. “BP is destroying the whole idea of sustainable energy belonging the oil industry,” he said. “The other oil companies need to wake up here and not think about themselves. They need to say we are an entire industry facing an image problem.”