BP Touts Greenness, Then Asks to Dump Ammonia

Oil Giant's Image Could be Tarnished by Move to Increase Discharge Levels

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- "We'd like to have them live up to their advertising."

That remark came from Sudhu Johnston, chief environmental officer for the city of Chicago, in response to oil giant BP applying for -- and receiving -- a permit from the state of Indiana to dump more toxic discharges from its Whiting, Ind., refinery into Lake Michigan.
BP: Request to dump more into Lake Michigan enraged officials in Chicago.
BP: Request to dump more into Lake Michigan enraged officials in Chicago. Credit: John Gress

The move, which allows BP to dump 54% more ammonia and 35% more suspended solids into the lake, enraged officials in the Windy City and raised the specter of consumer boycotts of BP, which has its U.S. base in Chicago.

But mainly the matter drew attention to 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.

BP's "Beyond Petroleum" corporate branding positions it as a green brand, and "if you give [consumers] physical proof the opposite is true, you're sunk," said Randy Herbertson, founder of branding-strategy firm Seesaw, New York.

'Kind of stuff all activists love'
Research shows that consumers assume advertising is hype, Mr. Herbertson said, and they assume oil companies are big and greedy. This maelstrom is just the "kind of stuff all activists love to use to fan the fire," he said.

However, BP's green positioning has resonated with U.K. consumers who ranked BP ninth among their top 20 "green" brands in an online survey by Landor Associates.

To mitigate the backlash, BP started advertising in regional newspapers several weeks ago to clear up misconceptions about the issue, a spokesman said.
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