BP Should Have Concentrated on Being a Better Oil Company

More About the Fiasco Spilled From a Prudhoe Bay Pipeline

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I have a different take on the BP-Prudhoe Bay oil pipeline fiasco than John Kenney.
BP, whose recent ad campaigns portrayed the company as an environmental champion, is now wrestling with the petroleum mess and PR disaster spilled out onto Alaska's North Slope tundra. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
BP, whose recent ad campaigns portrayed the company as an environmental champion, is now wrestling with the petroleum mess and PR disaster spilled out onto Alaska's North Slope tundra. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below. Credit: AP

'Beyond petroleum'
Mr. Kenney wrote a piece for The New York Times the other day recounting how Ogilvy & Mather came up with BP's ad campaign using man-on-the-street interviews and making the BP moniker stand for "beyond petroleum."

Mr. Kenney said that it was normally very tough to get people to stop and talk. "But with oil it was different. People stopped. They talked. They were intrigued and passionate and intelligent and a little angry."

'Raw and emotional'
After a day-and-a-half of interviews the agency had enough for five commercials, he said. "They were raw and emotional. The things people said were sometimes none-too-flattering to BP or the oil industry."

Each spot ended with a list of some "beyond petroleum" things BP was doing, such as alternate forms of energy and reducing emissions. And then the line, "It's a start."
It's a start as workmen go about the task of cleaning up the fragile ecosystem along a Prudhoe Bay pipeline that nobody inspected.
It's a start as workmen go about the task of cleaning up the fragile ecosystem along a Prudhoe Bay pipeline that nobody inspected. Credit: AP


Mr. Kenney seems disillusioned after the disclosure that BP's Prudhoe Bay pipeline, which supplies 8% of U.S oil production, was corroded and leaking -- for many years because nobody inspected it. He said: "The company that claims to be beyond petroleum shut down a pipeline that serves up 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Maybe Coca-Cola's new line should be, 'It's good for your teeth."'

'Maybe I'm naïve'
Mr. Kenney takes a big sigh, and writes, "I guess looking at it now, 'beyond petroleum' is just advertising. It's become mere marketing -- perhaps it always was -- instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm. Maybe I'm naïve."

I think he is naïve to think that the campaign didn't work. Sure, the whole thing was "just advertising." It was made up by the ad agency, including the "beyond petroleum" part (although in all fairness BP does own a solar-energy company and has lowered its greenhouse-gas emissions). It was concocted by the agency to cut through the "corporate speak" of big oil companies. BP bought into it, you could argue, a little too much. "Beyond reality" might be a more appropriate slogan.

Paying attention to its pipeline
I wish BP still believed it was in the oil business. If it did, maybe it would have paid a little more attention to its pipeline. But the company was way out there, beyond petroleum, and I guess the oil business just wasn't cutting-edge enough to warrant its attention.

Writing two days before Mr. Kenney's article, the Times' Joe Nocera said he was walking through an airport when he spotted a BP poster.

"You know the kind I'm talking about. The letters BP in lower-case type-making them look somehow warmer and fuzzier." Like most BP ads, indeed, like all BP marketing, it spoke to the company's committment to the environment.

"And here's what I thought when I saw it: 'Oh, yeah, right.'"

'Holier than thou' marketing
Mr. Nocera said if BP hadn't been so "holier than thou" in its marketing during the last few years, " I doubt that it would be getting hammered right now -- at least to this extent.

"And if there is one ironclad rule about marketing, it is that you had better be practicing internally what you are preaching to the world."

And one more last word of advice, this from me: If you are the ad agency, you'd better do some due diligence to make sure the glorified image you are creating for your client holds up when your client turns out to be not quite so enlightened as you depicted it to be.

My take is that the BP ads implied that the company had already arrived at an exalted environmentally friendly state. I wish it had concentrated on being a better oil company.
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