Brits Say BP Isn't So Bad

In Its Home Country, Oil Spiller Seen as 'Doing Its Best in a Difficult Situation'

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LONDON ( -- BP has made enemies around the world as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, but the British people are neither mourning the loss of the company's reputation nor defending it against the vitriol of President Barack Obama. On this side of the Atlantic, the disaster is not perceived as entirely BP's fault.

BP workers performing cleanup.
BP workers performing cleanup. Credit: BP
"It's an occupational hazard of drilling. BP is a quality company, and if something goes wrong it's not seen as being because of incompetence," said John Woodward, worldwide planning director of Publicis Worldwide. "BP is seen as doing its best in a difficult situation."

However, Mr. Woodward points out that drilling in such deep water is "at the outside edge of what's doable" and draws a parallel with bankers trading in derivatives they don't understand.

The U.K.-based oil brand means little to most Brits, who see it not as a global representative of British industry, but as a respected, if faceless, conglomerate, created by multiple acquisitions, on par with Shell and Exxon, though environmental activists in the U.K. have long christened BP with names such as "Bugger the Planet" and "Big Profit" or "Big Polluter."

"It's a large, nasty, greedy oil company," said Chris Arnold, an environmental marketing specialist and founder of independent agency Creative Orchestra, "but consumers are largely hypocritical about it. People are prepared to turn a blind eye to oil companies because they want petrol for their cars. Consumers pay lip service to environmental values, but will trade them in very quickly in order to drive a car or look 10 years younger."

There is, however, a feeling that Mr. Obama's attacks on BP look like scapegoating and point-scoring at a crucial time in the election cycle. The view is that American greed for oil was at the heart of the decision to allow drilling so close to the coast, and while that does not exonerate BP, it also points a finger at the U.S. government for failure to monitor subcontractors closely enough.

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The belief is that despite some unfortunate and unhelpful comments by its CEO, Tony Hayward, BP's communications response has been relatively sound, because it took immediate responsibility for the disaster and has pledged to spend whatever it takes to clean up the consequences.

"Tony Hayward should be congratulated for agreeing to be the spokesperson, and to hide behind nobody and nothing. It's an almost insurmountable task for a single individual, but he's taken it on the chin -- he's prepared to stand up and be counted," said Hugh Robertson, co-founder of independent London creative agency RPM.

'Operational disaster'
The long-term consequences for the BP brand are judged to be significant but not life-threatening. Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of independent marketing communications agency Engine Business, said, "It's an operational disaster, not a communications disaster. There's very little communications could have done. The whole image of the petrochemical industry has been damaged, but the repercussions for BP will be less at brand level and more at the contract level when they are doing deals."

Creative Orchestra's Mr. Arnold believes that BP surrendered its Britishness in 2001 when it adopted the "Beyond Petroleum" tagline. "The average Brit doesn't know that ham comes from pigs," he said, "so they are unlikely to know that BP is British."

News coverage of the events, however, has expanded British people's knowledge of BP considerably. Brits now know that the company's shares are an important component of millions of pension funds, and that for 20 years those shares have been performing well. Brits also know that BP contributed nearly $9 billion in U.K. taxes last year -- a significant impact given the spending cuts planned by the new government.

British people tend not to be nationalistic about marge companies and are more likely to identify with smaller, local businesses or, in the case of Virgin and Dyson, with those that are run by admired entrepreneurs, said Mr. Deshmukh.

Rather than identifying with BP, Mr. Deshmukh said, the British people are more likely to identify with the American victims of the disaster. "Britain is an island nation, and nobody lives far from the coast. The British people are very empathetic to the idea of a coastline being ruined."

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