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.