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How Now, Brand BP?

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Tomorrow will be the hundredth day since the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Today, the oil cap is in place, Tony Hayward has been exiled to Russia, and we're rolling up our sleeves for a cleanup of mind-numbing magnitude.

While it appears BP has stemmed the flow and the spill won't get any worse, there are still many unknowns. One of those is the fate of BP's now infamous "Beyond Petroleum" brand.

Any brand would take a drubbing in a catastrophe like this. But BP has been hammered exponentially harder because of the company's greener-than-thou repositioning in 2000.

Even then, there were skeptics who accused BP of greenwashing. But the majority of us believed. In 2003, BP ranked 69th among BusinessWeek's most valuable global brands. In 2010 it was named one of the most relevant identities of the decade by the blog Brand New.

As Derrick Daye and Brad VanAuken write in Branding Strategy Insider, "People bought into BP's repositioning because they saw glimmers of actual behavioral change. But if we had all looked harder, we would have realized that glimmers were all they were."

So can BP's brand survive this spectacular fall? Or is our sense of betrayal so great that we can never forgive?

Not having a crystal ball handy, I relied on my own experience building and saving brands, and came up with a few options that Bob Dudley, the new head of BP, might be contemplating. They are:

1. Sell BP, making all this brand conjecture someone else's problem
2. Hide BP behind its subsidiaries
3. Become British once more
4. Make BP really stand for Beyond Petroleum

Sell BP

Dougie Youngson, a London-based analyst at Arbuthnot Securities, said: "Things are going to be a lot tougher for BP in the States in the future. It could well be their position in America just becomes untenable and they could ultimately have to sell those assets as a package to one of their peers."

The obvious suitor is Royal Dutch Shell. Ex-BP CEO John Browne said in his autobiography the companies quietly explored such a move in 2004.

Steve Goldstein of MarketWatch acknowledges that Shell has problems of its own, but at least they've been more in the accounting realm (such as when it infamously overstated the value of its oil reserves at the beginning of the last decade). As such, converting BP USA into Shell would have a calming effect on the brand... or at least it would remove the specter of spills and explosions.

Hide BP Behind its Subsidiaries

Amoco, Arco, ampm and Castrol are all well-known BP subsidiaries. BP could conceivably push these brands quietly to the forefront, and take shelter behind them.

The BP brand could then be left to die away, or at least keep itself out of the public eye. Although this strategy would damage the subsidiary brands in the short term, people would quickly stop making the connection.

There are two clear benefits to this strategy: First, the "Beyond Petroleum" red flag would no longer be waving in the angry consumer's eye. And second, dispersing the anger among a number of subsidiaries would also disperse the vitriol, making it easier to overcome. In simple English, it's harder to vent if you aren't exactly sure who is, and who isn't associated with the culprit.

Become British Once More

In a conversation with Marty McDonald, creative director at Sustainable Brand agency Egg, the option of backtracking on the concept of 'Beyond' arose. As Marty said "There's no way they can live up to Beyond Petroleum."

Marty suggested the best transition might involve letting the "Beyond" brand quietly disappear and replacing it with the original "British" "...while reclaiming the honest truth -- that you are a petroleum company."

In Marty's eyes, the cleanup effort would serve to leave a halo of virtue on the original British Petroleum brand, and allow a retreat to the comfortable place the brand occupied prior to its green repositioning.

Although this seems a safe move, and one driven by humility, it isn't without risk. The massive mea culpa might leave the BP workforce even more demoralized, and unable to bootstrap itself back to corporate health.

Make BP Really Stand for Beyond Petroleum

Finally, I spoke with Paul Lavoie, Chairman of Taxi Advertising. Lavoie agreed that BP's disaster could actually become BP's greatest opportunity.

"The brand is in ruins. Radical action is the only thing that will save it. Either it needs to be buried quickly, or brought back to life with a vengeance."

I postulated that BP could save itself -- indeed, place its brand in a category of one -- by living the innovation in the "Beyond Petroleum" promise. Lavoie agreed "it would work, if the transformation was real; if it came with radical goals; and if the company embraced the transparency and scrutiny of third party measurement."

Yes, it would be risky. There would be failures, shortfalls and doubt. But as Dupont proved between 1995 and 2005, the journey from environmental pariah to respected corporate citizen is possible.

Imagine for a moment a BP that declared itself the champion of renewable energy, with hard, progressive, intensely scrutinized goals. Imagine the company apologizing to the people of Louisiana not by taking out full-page newspaper ads, but by building a green energy research lab that becomes a hub of green innovation in the state. Imagine BP underwriting the world's first coast-to-coast electric vehicle charging network powered by the sun. The possibilities conjure up the excitement and challenge of the Apollo project.

Does the company have the stomach to embrace this sort of bold vision? The departure of Hayward may open the doors for it. As unlikely as it seems, it's still a window of hope and opportunity.