Friday, June 18, 2010

The name of the beast.

Far be it from me to jump on the BP dogpile. If punditry were Pampers, that hole would have been plugged weeks ago. I have nothing to add to the discussion about whether BP’s brand – or its business - is going to be a casualty of this mess, or even whether they’re handling it intelligently. There’s a colloquialism for this, of which the first two syllables are “cluster,” and the only unfolding media story that’s getting anywhere close to this attention and analysis right now involves grown men kicking a ball (a ball made, ironically, mostly of petroleum products. Leather, even more ironically, apparently tends to hold too much moisture).

But, if you’re in the branding business, it’s hard not to reflect on it anyway. It’s hard not to wonder if there are any lessons here, even if our business isn’t poking holes in the planet to see if there’s anything gooey inside. And it’s hard not to conclude that there are at least two, and that they apply no matter what you sell. Even if what you sell is you.

The first is that to have a brand is to be accountable. There is simply no way to avoid the natural law that if you want the marketing power a famous brand gives you, you have to accept that being a lightning rod for accountability comes with the deal. It is, in fact, second only to choice, the main reason consumers tolerate branding at all. In the case of the Gulf disaster, it was stunning how quickly BP became that lightning rod. Without disputing that they are the biggest actor in the story, it was amazing how quickly the other two oil exploration companies leasing the Deepwater Horizon fell off the media radar. It was amazing how quickly Halliburton and Transocean disappeared from the coverage and from our minds. And why? Because BP is famous. In 2009, BP was one of the 100 most valuable global brands on the planet, according to Interbrand. They pump 22 billion gallons a year into gas tanks in America alone, through 10,000 BP-branded filling stations there. Their fame made them a target, and it gave we, the people, leverage that we just don’t have against a company like Halliburton. Even the marketing-savvy White House recognized this, and early, too: Less than two weeks after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, the White House blog had given it a name – The Deepwater BP Oil Spill – complete with its own logo, just like the cable news networks do. Even with its terrible cost, this disaster is a reminder that, in the branding game as in the superhero game, great power comes with great responsibility.

The second is that a brand is not a logo, and a rebranding is not a design project. In 2000, BP embarked on a ‘rebranding’. They hired fancy people to do it, and paid them $7 million. For this, they received a very attractive logo, I would imagine a lovely and thuddingly dense rationale document, and the audacious claim that an oil company can be a friend of the planet. After that, we can assume that the creators of this brand hopped into their arrogant little Audis, being careful to first hang their Prada jackets in the back, and zoomed off to the next transformation. As for BP, we don’t need to assume. The CEO at the time, John Browne, told the press, “It’s all about increasing sales, increasing margins and reducing costs at the retail site.” And, with arrogance and foolishness that were supreme in equal measure, his organization believed that a pretty green flower was going to help get that job done. It’s not a ludicrous stretch to imagine that some of the seeds of disaster were planted then, especially if the people who work for BP experienced any dissonance between the message sent by their new ‘brand’ and the realities of working there. That kind of thing only promotes cynicism and disengagement in an organization. What I suspect BP did not realize, and what far, far too many corporations today still don’t realize, is that a brand is not a marketing imperative. It’s an organizational imperative. A company does not have a brand. A company is a brand.

As consumers, we can start to redeem this mess by thinking about how we all face the problem of oil dependency. We know what we need to do, and to say. But perhaps less obvious is that there’s a chance to redeem this mess as corporations, too, whatever we happen to sell. If all of this serves to remind corporate leadership that brands mean accountability, and that corporations have to live their brands rather than just wearing them, it will surely be some small progress against this kind of history repeating itself. It is, in any case, if you ask me, the essence of the job. The weight of that responsibility is not something from which a leader can ever get their “life back,” Mr. Hayward. It is their life.