BP: Coloring Public Opinion?

LOS ANGELES You’d think sinking billions into alternate energy would earn any corporation a “green” thumbs up. But if that corporation is also the world’s second-largest producer of fossil fuels, there’s a lot more explaining to do. And that’s exactly what BP has been doing for seven years in a rebranding effort that touts its alternate-energy initiatives and positions the company as environmentally friendly.

Separate from the retail campaign for its products such as gas stations, BP’s corporate campaign tacitly positions it as the energy company that’s more honest with consumers than other oil companies and one that tries to reconcile their need for fuel with their fear of polluting.

Since 2000, BP’s “Beyond petroleum” campaign, via WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather, has been praised by the consumer business press and awards shows as a prescient model of credible corporate social responsibility and criticized by skeptics as “greenwashing” by an oil producer and refiner that’s no different from its competitors.

The ongoing campaign raises the question of whether advertising—as much as action—can change public perception of a corporation like BP, which is engaged in the often dirty business of finding and producing energy.

Formerly known as British Petroleum, the company that first struck oil in the Middle East in 1908 became the first major oil company to acknowledge a potential link between energy use and global warming in 1997. Later that year, BP shocked the Global Climate Coalition and environmentalists by unexpectedly withdrawing from the now-defunct corporate interest group.

“When they broke ranks with the other oil companies, it was a body blow to the GCC’s public relations campaign, and led to its eventual death,” says John Stauber, founder and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis. “That was like BP pouring sugar in their gas tank.”

A December 1998 merger with Indiana-based Amoco created BPAmoco, a sprawling conglomerate with low awareness outside its Midwest hometown. Most Americans, in fact, had no sense of British Petroleum, for good or for ill, says Kathy Leech, BP’s Chicago-based U.S. director of brand communications.

In 2000, the company began to present itself as a socially conscious energy company with as many concerns about the environment as its consumers.

That campaign, which introduced BP as standing for “Beyond Petroleum,” was polarizing to say the least. Environmental and anti-corporate groups such as CorpWatch, for example, grudgingly admitted that BP had indeed become the world leader in solar energy production, but complained that it had only achieved that feat through the acquisition of Solarex and had spent significantly more money on stereotypically rapacious oil-company ventures.

In December 2005, BP CEO John Browne told the Brookings Institute that the company would invest $8 billion over the next 10 years toward alternative energy exploration, again raising cheers in some corners and eyebrows in others.

In a Multinational Monitor cover story excoriating BP as among “The 10 Worst Corporations of 2005,” the advertising was directly attacked. “It is running two-page ads in major newspapers, touting itself as a leader in alternative energy,” the publication wrote. “This is part of a high-energy campaign to cover up BP’s dirty tricks that flow from their oil business.”

But a January 2007 issue of BusinessWeek reinforced a positive perception of BP with the cover story “Beyond the Green Corporation.” Pondering whether socially responsible policy could also add to a company’s bottom line, the article contended that Innovest’s better-than-Exxon AA risk rating for BP was derived from its $8 billion commitment to alternative energy.

In the meantime, every unpopular policy regarding oil exploration, perceived as typical oil-company shenanigan or unfortunate accident, such as the fatal Texas City refinery explosion in 2005, was, fairly or not, measured against BP’s new brand image of being greener than thou.

After BP’s flurry of mergers and acquisitions, the corporation saw the need to replace its multiple brand images with a distinct and uniform identity in 2000, according to Leech. “We needed to come up with a vision for BP that was global,” she recalls. “That’s when we introduced the helios [logo].”

Created by Landor Associates at its London and San Francisco offices, the helios logo—a stylized yellow sun whose green edges help it pass for a flower—replaced both the Amoco and BP shields worldwide.

In 2002, BP took the next step of changing Amoco gas stations to BP. “We had done a good job of convincing consumers that the same fuel would be there, but hadn’t told consumers anything but, ‘Amoco is now BP.’ We hadn’t defined BP,” says Leech.

In preparation for the rebranding effort, WPP’s research arm, BrandZ, had helped the creative team at Ogilvy come to a crucial insight about selling fuel products that would influence its overall strategy, according to John Seifert, Ogilvy chairman of global brand community, New York.

Seifert said the BrandZ study showed that it was possible to build product differentiation within the category of motor fuels, and that Amoco and Amoco Ultimate had proven that. But, overall, the motor fuels category was significantly underperforming other categories in the ability to build brand affinity. In fact, he says, it was the lowest of all categories BrandZ evaluated, including packaged goods, services, even corporate marketing.

To “transcend the category problem,” Ogilvy’s team resolved to build the BP brand with “real equity and emotional affinity beyond the products and services themselves,” Seifert says. In other words, there was plenty of room for emotional attachment to a fuel company.

In 2002 and 2003, BP ran a city-specific, out-of-home campaign from Ogilvy themed, “BP on the Street.” The effort, targeted at influential investors and policy makers, appeared in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., cities unrelated to the company’s retail gas sales. “It was a radical conversation with consumers about the paradox of the need for energy and the cost for getting it,” says Leech. “The idea was a very transparent campaign where consumers said some very harsh things and we responded back in dialogue.” (BP worked with several Ogilvy offices in the U.S. and abroad during the effort, which was led by senior partner and worldwide cd David Fowler in London.)

In 2004, the “Street” campaign went national. Using simple vox pop interviews as the basis for TV spots, the campaign was designed to earn “street cred,” says Seifert, “by giving consumers a voice in how they perceive the industry, current energy issues and the BP brand. It wasn’t in the spirit of ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads: We’ll get you the oil that you need,’ but ‘Here’s how you see the world of energy, and here’s what we’re trying to do in the context,” he adds.

More recent broadcast spots, such as “Today, Tomorrow,” feature a series of people in hometown settings (diners, city streets) answering questions from an unseen interviewer. “Do I think that we can become completely independent from oil?” a man ponders. “No.”

The screen copy reads: “We’ve invested $28 billion in the last five years in U.S. energy supplies … and $500 million over the next 10 years to develop advanced biofuels. It’s a start.” The spots end with the “Beyond petroleum” tag and the helios logo, which is animated to bloom.

“What would you rather have, a car or a cleaner environment?” asks an interviewer in another spot. “I can’t imagine being without my car,” answers a woman outside a state park. “But that compromise is very hard to make where we are.” Copy reads, “We voluntarily introduced cleaner fuels, six years before EPA mandates … these low-sulphur fuels reduce ozone pollution … and are available in 40 U.S. cities. It’s a start.”

The campaign was meant to build “more humility, more transparency, more openness to the relationship,” says Leech. Print ads featured plenty of white space and minimal copy and “facts where we had them,” she adds.

Recent print executions boast of BP as “the largest investor in U.S. energy development” and a developer of “low-carbon energy solutions from solar, wind, hydrogen and natural gas” and trumpet BP’s investment in an Energy Bioscience Institute.

Using a large “What on earth is a carbon footprint?” headline, another print piece explains how ordinary people leave a carbon dioxide footprint in the course of their everyday activities and drives traffic to the carbon footprint calculator page of the BP Web site, which encourages consumers to measure the size of their “footprints.”

Online efforts began with banners in 2004 and, in 2005, BP added the carbon footprint calculator.

During the most recent period, BP’s U.S. media spending fluctuated from $145 million in 2005 down to $100 million in 2006, then up again to $125 million through October 2007, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

These aren’t exactly hard times for oil companies, and BP is no exception. Its sales have risen steadily during the “Beyond petroleum” branding effort. Sales from 2004 to 2005 rose from $192 billion to $240 billion, then again the next year to $266 billion, according to the company’s annual report.

Public perception of BP shows the campaign is working. A Landor “ImagePower Green Brands Survey” conducted last spring determined that while petroleum and energy brands lag in overall “green” perceptions, BP topped all other brands in the category. It was regarded as more green (21 percent) than Shell (15 percent), Chevron (13 percent), ExxonMobil (11 percent) and Texaco (9 percent). BP also topped the survey of companies that had “become more green” in the last five years, with 49 percent of consumers familiar with the brands agreeing that BP had, compared to 36 percent for Shell and 31 percent for ExxonMobil.

BP’s Web site energized and engaged consumers. In 2004, the site garnered 1.13 million page views and 658,000 unique visitors to the carbon-reduction pages alone. And 278,000 people used the calculator, with 69 percent completing the survey, BP said.

In addition, the campaign won a 2007 gold Effie from the American Marketing Association, an award that judges advertising effectiveness. The AMA called the campaign “a landmark platform for a company trying to change the way the world uses, and thinks about, the fuels that are vital to human progress.” The Effie citation adds, “Against a backdrop of skepticism, the world’s second-largest energy company wanted to be different. The BP corporate reputation campaign communicates the company’s progressive values in a distinctive, non-glossy way.”

But it’s plenty glossy for critics, who accuse BP of co-opting green language to distract the public from its business-as-usual practices.

“In the last 14 years, ‘greenwashing’ has become a real problem,” says Stauber. “Every company wants to look responsible, and people would prefer to buy from companies that are. BP is running a greenwashing campaign, and from a sales and marketing perspective, it is brilliant. They’ve positioned themselves where everyone wants to be today, especially oil companies.”

Inspired by BP’s advertised claims, a number of organizations have scrutinized the campaign. Last November, a PFC Energy study focused on BP, which it called “the first [oil company] to acknowledge the reality of global warming and accept its corporate responsibility on this matter.” The study concluded: “While BP has intensively communicated its stance on climate change and the actions it is taking to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, observers may wonder whether the company’s performance backs up its claims … Overall, PFC Energy finds that BP has indeed been more proactive than [competitors] in this domain.”

Even critics of the campaign acknowledge its efficacy.

“Have they convinced people through advertising and PR that they are a better company? I think so,” Stauber says. “Big ad budgets, full-page ads in The New York Times and branding campaigns do work. For every one piece in The Wall Street Journal or PR Watch on BP not living up to the standard—articles limited to a small audience—they’re reaching tens of millions every day with worldwide advertising.”

Did It Work?
BP sales have risen steadily over the last five years, from $180 billion in 2002 to $266 billion in 2006, per OpesC.

From 2000-07, BP said its brand awareness jumped from 4 percent to a recent high of 67 percent. A Landor study showed BP as “more green” in the last five years than any competitor.

The 2007 gold Effie for “Sustained success” called the campaign “a landmark platform.” Supporters continue to applaud the effort while critics burn up the blogs with citations of hypocrisy.

With so many companies jumping on the “green” bandwagon, is BP in for more backlash? At the very least, it can no longer claim unique positioning.

Regardless of whether industry observers believe BP is truly “green,” the company and its rebranding campaign have managed to convince the public that it is more eco-friendly than its competitors.