BP Walks Fine Line in Attempts to Restore Its Brand

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

The oil spill in the Gulf may finally be under control, but BP and the oil industry still have a lot of cleaning up to do when it comes to brand image.

BP in particular is caught in a tough business spot. Aside from rehabilitating its tarnished name, the company must think of the thousands of small retail businesses that distribute its product as well as the communities along the Gulf Coast affected by the spill -- and it must do so without coming across as cynical, manipulative or dishonest.

Case in point: The BP Amoco Marketers Association is considering the possibility of dropping the name BP for Amoco, a company BP acquired in 1998. Who can blame them? These retailers say they're losing significant business at the pump as consumers steer clear of BP. Not only would this move ditch a sullied name, it would have the added benefit of switching to a brand that sports red, white and blue. Amoco is actually derived from American Oil Co., but we'd bet good money that the average consumer doesn't know that.

Of course, the right marketing campaign could quickly remind consumers of that American heritage.

But here's the rub.

Such a renaming scheme carries with it some risk. If the company quietly shifts to Amoco, perhaps the American consumer will make note of it for a while and then go back to making gas-purchasing decisions based on price.

But if BP -- or the BP Amoco Marketers Association -- overplays its hand, how soon before the knives come out? There is still a great deal of ill will toward the company, and that's not going away any time soon. Precisely because the average consumer doesn't realize Amoco is a BP company, when that information is "revealed" in the media, it's that much more likely to seem like BP is hiding something. And, in fact, it is. It's trying to hide its tarnished name behind a subsidiary brand that isn't attached to a massive oil spill.

Again, the company and its retailers are picking from a couple of unattractive options. The better move in the long run may simply be to start rehabilitating the BP name in as transparent a manner as possible.

The best move? If the switch to Amoco is made, be honest. Play on the sympathy Americans have for struggling small-business owners.

And go easy on slick flag-waving marketing campaigns.

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