BP’s Oil Spill: Another Kind of Disaster

The environmental ramifications of the oil spill off the Gulf Coast should be everyone’s primary concern, of course, but there’s another kind of disaster marketers should analyze: the branding disaster associated with the oil spill.

Perhaps the crowning irony is that BP (British Petroleum) famously launched a marketing campaign entitled “BP: Beyond Petroleum” in 2000 and has stuck with it for a decade, touting very publicly its commitment to being green. OUCH.

Prior to the oil spill, reports Brandweek, BP had been the number one brand in the gasoline category on the Customer Engagement Loyalty Index, a respected measurement of brand popularity put out by research firm Brand Keys. But, says Brandweek, “in polls with consumers after the spill, BP dropped to dead last in the category, behind even Exxon.” Exxon, as we all know, has been dogged by the Exxon Valdez oil spill for umpteen years. The president of Brand Keys, Robert Passikoff, believes:

“The change [public] in sentiment will harm BP’s bottom line. Thirty percent of consumers, he said, will go out of their way not to buy from BP now. He attributes some of the avoidance to the brand’s positioning.”

As bad as BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” looks now, equally disastrous was the company’s sluggish and, some say, insensitive use of online communications, particularly social media, to blunt the crisis.

Lisa Merriam of brand strategy firm Merriam Associates thinks BP hurt itself by responding too slowly. She told Marketing Daily,

“They put all this emphasis on ‘human energy,’ and where are the humans now? It took them seven days to get out a Twitter response, and it’s so corporate and robotic. If you’re going to brag about how honest and open and responsive you are, you have to do that – would it have killed them to run a Twitter post that said something like, ‘Our hearts go out to the friends and families of those lost in the accident,’ or ‘We are working around the clock to contain the damage’?”

It took ten days after the oil rig blew up before BP had time to deal with the social ramifications and use, Facebook and Twitter for updates. But the Facebook page is not from BP alone – the page is sponsored by “Deepwater Horizon Response,” a joint effort by BP, the rig owner, and U.S. agencies involved in the operation.

In fact, it is this “unified command” that has created a decent webpage and manages the social media. BP’s identity is notably absent from the home page of the site. Deepwater Horizon Response is also posting videos to YouTube and slide shows to Flickr. And they are now encouraging comments and feedback, sometimes even asking for ideas from the public. Some of the Facebook comments are blunt, to put it mildly.

Stacey Knott, who manages the online operations for Deepwater Horizon Response, tells Adam Hochberg of Poynter Online, “Being able to have an open dialogue is social media at its best. … I want people to know there’s a real person here who’s trying to give them information.” Knott says the oil spill “may be the first attempt to develop a coordinated ‘one stop’ interactive effort during an ongoing disaster.

What can we, as online marketers, learn from BP’s double disaster?

For one thing, it would have made a lot of sense to use social media much more effectively and proactively, both to get out in front of the traditional media and, as Merriam pointed out, to be a little more human in responding. Which is not to say that responding to the disaster itself shouldn’t be top priority but BP is large enough of a corporation to have internal elements whose focus is strictly engagement. Those should have been put into play via social media much sooner. For another, BP could have opened the lines of communication early, and maybe even have tried to turn a problem into an opportunity by showing the world that it cared more about people than profits, and more about the environment than oil.

In short, BP could have proven it truly was “Beyond Petroleum.”

But they didn’t do any of that, and they will now have to live with the consequences of not just an environmental disaster, but a marketing disaster as well.

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to Brandchannel.com, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

4 Responses to BP’s Oil Spill: Another Kind of Disaster

  1. There are a couple of other considerations.

    The first is that for a company, like BP, who is facing a diaster with huge financial ramifications for the company, their legal department is going to be controlling all public communications. It is well likely that social networks aren’t goiong to be the first choice for those communications where it is likely to be felt there is less control.

    BP did play the first communications poorly however. That had to do with their lack of honesty, redgardless of the channel used for the communications. They took a pretty hard hit for it and are still feeling the fallout. The perception was one of BP CYA’ing instead of addressing the realities and scope of the disaster.

    As someone who lives in the area being impacted by this diaster, I asked a few other people how they felt about the points brought up here…whether or not they feft BP should have engaged social media more quickly in addressing this diaster.

    The overwhelming response I got, and granted this was a very limited number of people I asked, gave the same response that I felt. It was a resounding NO.

    The reason being that by engaging through sites like Twitter and FaceBook it seemed to trivialize the impact of this diaster. Social networks connotate “social”….this is not a “social” event for those being impacted.

    Granted, that type of response may well not come across so strong if this diaster had happened somewhere else. It may have, but I suppose maybe not. But Katrina still lingers for most in this area. People have lived through the “marketing” and “spin” of a diaster. Theyh learned many lessons from the response (or lack of) from Katrina and those lessons have not been forgotten. Now they face yet another diaster that not only ecological but threatens their livlihoods and way of life (a very deep-seated feeling for many here).

    They have no interest in what is obviously “marketing” by those involved. All they are really interested in what the problems and how can they be addressed. They want to know that all parties responsible are throwing ALL resources into taking care of the problem. So while BP is indeed a large company and can probably spare someone to post on FB and Twitter the likely perception down here would be “why are they wasting their time on that..it’s just CYA’ing…if they say they are throwing all their resources to the problem then they should be doing that”.

    I’ve been following this diaster on a daily basis and I have yet to seek out a social network to get any news about it. I went to that Deep Horizon page (deepwater horizon is the owner of the oil rig) and it did not hit me in a favorable way at all. They lost public relations points with at least me. Actually I found it offensive. It’s tone and theme are more appropriate to fans following their favorite celebrity and TV show. I don’t need nor want to see how many “fans” Deepwater Horizon Response has. There is very good content on that site which is appropriate for the situation such as the Plans and Volunteers. But the theme of the site misses the mark by a mile. This is not a social event, it is a diaster that has cost lives and threatens our top three economic resources: oil production, seafood industry and tourism. It lacks a certain degree of gravity that should be expressed.

    I think a lesson to be learned by marketers by the BP incident is to know your audience. Not all channels to reach the masses are appropriate for every situation.

    At the end of the day, BP will not win the court of public opinion by whether or not they have a FB page or Twittering condolences. They will make it through by taking responsibility for this diaster and doing everything humanly possible to minimize the impact.

  2. Barry Silverstein says:

    Thanks for your well-expressed comments, Kellie. Your perspective is especially meaningful coming from the area affected by the oil spill.

    I agree that the focus should be on BP's response and actions, not necessarily their use of social media.

    I do think, however, that if companies are visionary enough to leverage social media as a serious communications channel, they can get ahead of the curve of public opinion and be perceived as involved and concerned.

  3. sheryl chamerlain says:

    I wonder if a site explosion would place enough debris over the spout and stop the oil?

  4. Herman says:

    Pinpointing BP’s Pitfalls: Eight Ways to Reconnect After a Disaster

    Read the full article here: http://www.connectture.com/pa-393.aspx