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"Beyond Petroleum?"

As promised, this week DLB plans to drill into the BP brand and design strategy. Today: The research.

Back in July of 2000, British Petroleum, the world’s third largest global energy company, launched a massive $200 million public relations and advertising campaign, unveiling their current "green" brand image, in an attempt to win over environmentally aware consumers. The campaign was created by the British advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, who later the PRWeek 2001 "Campaign of the Year" award in the ‘product brand development’. All told, BP spent around $200m on the rebrand.

Logo for Ogilvy & Mather worldwide
The big ideal? What’s that again?

The heart of the rebrand involved changing the company’s name to BP (back from BP-Amoco, the result of a recent mega-merger), creating a wordmark in which small letters were used ("bp" was thought to have fewer imperialist associations than the erstwhile "BP"), and finally implementing a new corporate tagline, "beyond petroleum."

BP’s then CEO John Browne said: "It’s all about increasing sales, increasing margins and reducing costs at the retail sites." And it apparently did: During more than a decade with Browne as chief executive (ending last year), BP’s market value rose fivefold and its share price rose 250 percent.

Then BP PR advisor Peter Sandman described the rebranding project as an example of a company adopting the "reformed sinner" persona. Sandman notes that this "works quite well if you can sell it…[huge oil companies] can’t just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realised we were bad guys and we are going to be better.’ It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys…"

The "if you can sell it" bit may have proved not to have quite the legs Sandman anticipated, though. Skepticism in rampant not only among activists, but also in the maintream media. Fortune magazine’s Cait Murphy addressed BP’s billboards touting its involvement in renewable energy, "here’s a novel advertising strategy — pitch your least important product and ignore your most important one… If the world’s second-largest oil company is beyond petroleum, Fortune is beyond words."

CorpWatch researcher Kenny Bruno was even more blunt: “BP’s re-branding as the Beyond Petroleum company is perhaps the ultimate co-optation of environmentalists’ language and message. Even apart from the twisting of language, BP’s suggestion that producing more natural gas is somehow akin to global leadership is preposterous. Make that Beyond Preposterous.”

BP Exec by Nick Turner
BP Exec by Nick Turner (Via)

As it turns out, BP’s critics were not far off base. BP’s record of environmental protection has been no better than other oil companies’. Brand-reality dissonance abounds:

For example, while BP has staked out the brand-coherent public position of supporting of the Kyoto protocol – unlike the major American oil companies – Greenpeace New Zealand discovered in May 2002 that despite this, it continued to participate in a coalition lobbying the government not to ratify the convention. BP claimed that this was untrue, a claim which Greenpeace ultimately rejected, pointing to a February 2002 report produced on behalf of the coalition, which listed the Greenhouse Policy Coalition (GPC), of which BP is a member, among its members. The Chair of the GPC itself wrote an opinion column for a New Zealand newspaper titled "Nothing to gain from Kyoto Protocol."

In June 2005, The Independent reported that BP "has been privately lobbying in Washington to block legislation to introduce a mandatory curb on greenhouse gases in the U.S." In response, Environmental Defense’s Peter Goldmark noted that BP’s lobbying "is completely at odds with its record and its public statements." Clean Air Watch called BP guilty of "greenwashing on epic proportions."

In August 2007, Advertising Age reported that BP had received a permit to increase the amount of toxic discharges they dump into the Great Lakes. Chicago’s chief environmental officer remarked, "We’d like to have [BP] live up to their advertising."

AdAge called BP’s move "the cardinal sin of touting an environmentally conscious image in marketing — the central focus of BP’s advertising for the past several years — and failing to live up to the message."

If it ain’t broke?

Cardinal sin indeed. But so what? I can now personally attest to the fact that it works, not only on a micro-level, but on a macro level as well. So why should BP care about the ethics of their strategy? If brand-reality hypocrisy works so well, why change up? After all, isn’t it just the self-righteous sense of doing good that we’re after?

I don’t think so. And I’ll tell you why on Wednesday.


  1. John Browne steps down abruptly from BP; International Herald Tribune, 2007-05-01
  2. BP goes green; BBC, 2000-07-24
  3. bp: Beyond Petroleum? in Battling Big Business: Countering greenwash, infiltration and other forms of corporate bullying, Eveline Lubbers (ed.), Green Books (Devon, UK, 2002, pp. 26-32).
  4. Greenpeace challenges oil industry to outline routemap to renewable energy future; Greenpeace Press Release 2001-01-31
  5. BP at Sourcewatch
  6. Packaging the Beast: A Public Relations Lesson in Type Casting; PR Watch, 1996
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PaulNov 17, 2008

Comments on this post


Without defending BPs image, I think it is interesting to consider what effect the campaign had on people’s notions of environmenal action. Afterall, they spend 200m on raising ideas about the environment well before an inconvenient truth. Even if we suppose that BP did not live up to their promises, I think it is interesting to consider the effect on how people think about environmental issues.

Aaron Shields at 9:43am on Mon, Nov 17th.


Hey Aaron,

Yes, I agree that it’s interesting to think about that. The immediate corollary question that came to my mind was: Could environmental awareness that a BP brand campaign generates possibly be called meaningful environmentalism?

What I mean is, if awareness of environmental issues is generated by advertising in the service of maximizing the profits of anti-environmental corporate villainy, could it ever amount to anything but "environmentalism"? That is: to an advertising idea more than a real, contentful ethical stance.

Might the complacency of "environmentalism" might be more dangerous than the ignorance it supplants?

I don’t know, but it’s good stuff. Also, it looks like you’re getting an interesting blog started there. Added you to my feed reader.

Paul at 11:11am on Mon, Nov 17th.


Two points:

1. Along the lines of the previous comments, it is worth noting that when people and organizations change, rhetoric normally changes first, behavior changes second, and attitudes change last. It’s often hard to distinguish the hypocrisy of a person or organization that’s pretending to change from the anguished inconsistency of a person or organization that’s trying to change.

2. You quoted my work on the “reformed sinner” persona accurately — and I do think people and organizations that are changing are wiser to say so than to pretend that they’ve always been virtuous. But the “caged beast” persona is wiser still, in my judgment. When the change is a response to pressure, people and organizations are wiser to say so than to pretend that they had a conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. (See “Six Postures When Confronting Critics” at I have been critical of “Beyond Petroleum” for implying that BP isn’t really an oil company at all, but rather an environmental activist group that just happens to own oil wells. This claims far too much.

I agree with you that BP hasn’t lived up to its claims. Part of the problem is that it has changed too little; part of the problem is that it has claimed too much; part of the problem is (or at least may be) that it is going through an awkward and inconsistent transition. I’m not sure what the proportions are among these three factors, but I do think it’s mistake to think it’s all the first one.

Peter Sandman at 8:45am on Fri, Nov 21st.



Thanks for stopping by to talk about this. Your perspective is very much appreciated.

While I agree with you that it can be hard to distinguish the hypocrisy of an organization that’s pretending to change from the anguished inconsistency of one that’s really trying, I think that expecting consumers to give advertising that’s so dissonant from reality the benefit of the doubt is a little feet-first. I think that the onus is on BP to change their practices and then advertise to me based on the reality of their best attempts. By adopting the “reformed sinner” persona before they’ve done any real reforming, BP tries to shift the onus of responsibility to me, and I am now expected to literally dismiss reality in favor of advertising, or at least mitigate against the apparent contradictions between the two for ethical reasons (and indeed for how long before I can expect to see some results? Three years? Ten? How long does it take BP to turn the ship around, so to speak?) Why do they think this should work?

The way I see it, it’s is an attempt to capitalize on a pandemic of late-capitalist confusion about the relative similarity of giant corporations to other individuals. Because our ethical framework generally tells us that giving another individual the benefit of the doubt is “good,” and because we tend to think of companies as having qualities similar to those of other individuals, this kind of branding and advertising can slip one past with something like a human appeal. But, of course, corporations do not have qualities similar to humans. They don’t get human appeals.

So despite the fact that you may very well be right that BP is attempting an awkward and inconsistent transition to better corporate environmental stewardship (and I am willing to entertain this possibility), I don’t think it’s good practice for them to advertise it — much less to brand on it — in advance of any real, on-the-books activity. And here again, I don’t simply mean it’s not ethically good practice, I mean it’s ineffective.

Again, thanks for stopping by Peter. I appreciate the chance to talk about this with you.

Paul at 1:26pm on Sat, Dec 6th.


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