Disaster Branding: How BP’s Green PR Backfired

Quick, which company was responsible for the catastrophic natural gas leak in Bhopal, India, the worst industrial accident in modern history? What about the corporation that created the infamous toxic brew known as Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York?

Man-made disasters are usually named, and remembered, for their locations. That won’t be true in the case of the recent Gulf Coast oil spill. Like the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island over 30 years ago, the accident has a complicated set of causes and contributors. But unlike that near-catastrophe, this one bears a big brand name. BP will be forever linked to the Gulf oil rig accident. Ironically, its very efforts to rebrand itself as a progressive, even “green”  company, are part of the reason why.

As BP struggles to contain the oil slick spreading towards the Louisiana coast, it has also tried to spread the responsibility. Its partners, the Transocean Company, the regulatory agency MMS, and the much-maligned Halliburton, are also deeply involved, and Transocean is more directly culpable. But, the spill has tainted the BP brand as well as the Gulf waters. Its market capitalization has already bled $30 billion, and the reputation damage has only just begun.

For years, BP seemed to zig when the industry zagged. It was rebranded ten years ago, literally painting itself green, taking on a sunburst logo, and positioning itself as an energy company, not an oil business. What also stood out was its corporate communications platform, especially its maverick stance on global warming, articulated by former CEO John Browne. Never mind that NGOs referred to it as the “Big Polluter.” By calling on the industry to help reverse climate change, BP earned a reputation as an environmental progressive, at least among its peers.

But, a spotty record in the nineties proved that talking the talk just isn’t enough. Now, nearly three weeks after the oil rig explosion, it’s clear that BP’s eco-friendly branding was, at best, premature. Despite efforts to tighten safety protocols and embrace alternative energy production, its record is far from clean. It’s not alone, but that doesn’t matter.

The recent spill should properly be known as the Transocean Oil Flood. Or the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. But, this one is branded BP, in part because of the size of the gap between the slickly packaged brand image and the noxious reality.

When the gulf between PR and objective fact is this large, the reputation cost is high. But, there are learnings. The New York Times points out that the corporation now considered a paragon of responsibility is the very one most linked with toxic disaster. That’s right, it’s Exxon Mobil, the folks who brought us the Exxon Valdez. Among industry watchers, “Exxon” is actually a gold standard for scrupulous adherence to safety standards.

So, can BP save its brand? Once the oil is contained, and only then, can the reputation cleanup begin. Since it’s stuck with the oil spill label, BP’s best strategy might actually be to follow the Exxon example. Its brand communications challenge will be to make its name synonymous with the fix, not just the disaster. Talking the talk – to the tune of millions in branding, advertising, and PR – is expensive. But, not walking the walk has an even higher price.

How Method Cleaned Up A PR Mess

How do you clean up a PR mess? That’s the question Method, the natural cleaning products company, asks after a video created to rally support for the Household Products Labeling Act, which would mandate disclosure of chemical ingredients in common cleansers, somehow went toxic. It went from being the toast of the ad world to…well, just toast.

In “Shiny Suds,” a young mom enters her freshly-cleaned bathroom shower, only to be met with toxic animated soap bubbles who explain they’re chemical residue left by her cleanser. In male, frat-boy voices, the bubbles leer and jeer at her as she showers, while she cringes in embarrassment. The bubbles hoot, heckle, and egg her on to “scrubsy dubsy, baby!” Finally, they begin to chant, “Loofah, loofah!”

The point – that you can’t know what toxins could be lurking in your home without proper labeling – is clear. It struck me as a bit over the top, but memorable and mildly funny, especially the loofah bit. “Shiny Suds” was an instant hit with the trade press and blogosphere. It was hailed as a creative, witty way to promote Method’s labeling agenda and praised by marketers at the Association of National Advertisers conference last month and went modestly viral on YouTube.

Yet, a couple of weeks later, Method found itself on the defensive. Jezebel.com called the video “creepy” and said its message was that the woman “deserved to be sexually harassed” by the dirty bubbles. Commenters, mostly women, were also in a lather. Many said they had already contacted Method to express their disgust. The Method madness continued when the feminist blog shakesville.com linked “Shiny Suds” to “rape culture,” drawing over 100 comments.

Talk about toxic. No doubt wondering how they went from viral marketing geniuses to sex offenders in three short weeks, Method moved swiftly lest the public relations controversy sully its (fairly spotless) brand reputation. It issued an apology for those disturbed by the video and promptly pulled it from official websites like YouTube. So, within a month, “Shiny Suds” was…well, scrubbed.

I’m as turned off by sexism as any other female professional, but I didn’t see it in “Shiny Suds,” let alone sexual violence. The bubbles seemed harmless. But, some might have missed that the video was meant as a parody of the classic household soap commercial, like Mr. Clean or Wisk’s “ring around the collar.” At least, that’s how I saw it as a marketing PR person, and others seemed to agree.

But, then it hit me. Method’s error – if there was one – was in not anticipating the sensibilities of its core customers. It’s a little like the flap over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op/ed about healthcare reform. Mackey’s ideas weren’t unreasonable, but he should have known that his views would clash with the progressive values of the typical Whole Foods customer.

The “Shiny Suds” agitation is also reminiscent of the Motrin ad that hit a nerve with the momosphere last year. But, the difference here is in how Method responded…quickly and respectfully. They actually handled each complaint individually, and the statement the company put out was well crafted and timely.

The bottom line is this. Good public relations can sometimes mean standing up to criticism from a vocal minority, particularly when it goes against corporate or brand values. But, in this case, the protesters weren’t Method haters.

They were concerned women with strong political and social values who take any objectification of females very seriously. In other words, they were Method customers, by and large. By cleaning up its act, Method prevented the bubble of controversy from becoming a full-blown crisis.

The Prince, The Frog, And The Rainforest

My kindergarten-aged daughter brings home a stream of stories, hand-drawn art, and songs with a “green” theme – all part of the not-so-subtle propaganda that I dearly hope will lead to an entire generation of more environmentally-aware adults. But as she explains, wide-eyed, about how and why we need to protect the Earth, I’m struck by how little of that childlike wonder survives in the marketing of “green” behavior and actions to adults.  Eco-marketing tends to make uninspired use of celebs and other personalities and can at times take on an “eat your vegetables” tone.
That’s why I found Prince Charles’ public service announcements to save the rainforest so freshing. The Prince is joined by his sons, Prince Harry and Prince William, and a diverse lineup of luminaries that includes Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Pele, Robin Williams, and the Dalai Lama in a new video promoting conservation of the rainforests.
“Our aim…is to build an online community to call for urgent action to protect the rainforests, without which we will most certainly lose the battle against catastrophic climate change,” intones Charles. But the gravity of his words is lightened by a whimsical computer-animated frog sitting next to him.  In fact, the green guy upstages the stars in every frame.  It’s a lovely touch, and one that adds a little magic to the spots, and to the message.