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Passive Aggressive Branding
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

BP's Announced Scale Back From Some Clean Up Ops Means It Doesn't Understand Its Branding Challenge

With reports that the oil gusher in the Gulf is nearly kaput, BP's new CEO announced Friday that the company would scale back its cleanup efforts in areas where there is no more oil. Makes sense. Still bad for the brand, though.

There are two problems with which BP must contend, one situational and the other conceptual:

First, the crisis is anything but over. Plugging the well is a great (though long overdue) accomplishment, and no new oil in the water is absolutely a good thing. But scientists are having trouble finding where all the spilled oil ended up; if it didn’t wash up on those shores from which BP is withdrawing its workers, did it settle on the ocean floor? Is it floating under the surface? It's somewhere, and while miraculous natural Earth forces could be responsible for taking care of things, there's no definitive answer.

Then there are the continuing negative effects on the environments and economies over which the spilled oil has washed, and the many questions about how BP and its competitors have learned to avoid future crises (and plan to handle them if they do occur).

The second problem is that BP has no credibility to talk about anything anymore. This isn't wholly its fault: trust in corporations overall is low, as it is in political institutions and even the presumed agnostic crowds of online social communities. Brands have yet to crack the code on how to build reputations in this Age of Ubiquitous Blather in which we live (my personal two cents' worth is that even brilliantly funny and watchable viral campaigns like Old Spice's latest are "empty social calories" that transform brands into entertainment, which makes it harder for anybody to trust that what they say or do is necessarily true).

BP hasn't done its reputation any favors, though. For every gesture -- and it has done so many things correctly, as per the standards of corporate public relations...beautiful web site, glossy "we care" TV commercials, even offering up the sacrificial head of its now-former CEO Tony Hayward, to take responsibility for the spill -- it's hard not to think that it’s also doing everything it can to minimize its exposure, whether to financial costs or bad publicity. Did the aggressive use of chemical dispersants break the oil into such little globules so they can’t be found (but still harm the ocean)? Were their agents really stopping photography of the damage, prohibiting workers from talking about what they saw, or trolling the shores to get impacted fishermen to sign away their lawsuit rights for unfairly small payments?

I'd put money on BP’s expert branding counsel telling the company's board of directors that the best thing it can do for its brand is to get out of headlines. Period. It doesn't matter how or why. Out of sight really is out of mind in the buzz of the mediasphere, and every day that passes with nothing notable said about BP is a day it can focus on making huge profits from pumping gas. You could argue that avoiding bad news and trying to make money is exactly what it (or any company) should do; they do what is required of them by law and business strategy.

I just wonder if it's possible anymore for brands to follow that approach generally, and for BP particularly on this crisis.

Bob Dudley, the incoming CEO, could have announced on Friday that "today is Friday" and there'd still be a chorus of reporters and bloggers doubting and deconstructing the statement. I don't think BP can step away from the crisis even slightly, let alone legitimately, without triggering the distrust and suspicion people feel for the brand. It can hire an endless list of experts and post updates on its web site every nanosecond but it's still going to be reacting to the news cycle, not leading it...and certainly not often avoiding it.

So I say embrace the issue:

  • Why couldn't BP lead the search for the missing oil? Declare to the public that it refuses to accept the answer that the oil has disappeared instead of ducking the news entirely?
     
  • Why wouldn't it announce vigilance programs to make sure no oil washes up on otherwise pristine beaches? Instead of a scale back make it a citizen-led thing, like watching the skies for bombers or missiles?
     
  • Where is the social engagement through its web site to get volunteers to help? Right now there's a single solicitation for "ideas" on the right-hand nav bar.

BP has done the textbook communications things and avoided the bad ones, however imperfectly and inconsistently, but its efforts net out as a calculated, stuttering start/stop strategy, and not the actions of a brand with clear POV.

I don't think the standard PR playbook is working.

Added: 2nd August 2010

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