For BP, Being "Beyond Petroleum" Depends on How They Act

By now, there has been a lot reported and written about BP. The branding debate has been about whether their “Beyond Petroleum” proposition can be sustained. The answer lies in how they choose to act.

There are many studies measuring the success of the “Beyond Petroleum” positioning. It was a cleaver way to differentiate a large petroleum company from the competition and enable significant global expansion. It is a lofty idea in search of action.

As historical background, the business was started in 1909 as Anglo-Persian Oil, having made a significant oil discovery in Iran. Over the last century, it morphed into several other names until becoming British Petroleum in 1954. BP made significant acquisitions globally including Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio), Amoco, Arco, and Burma Castrol. Today it is the third largest energy company in the world. In 2001, British Petroleum renamed itself BP, began using the famous tagline “Beyond Petroleum”, and created the now well-known helios mark. This repositioning resonated with consumers and the trade. But like any well-positioned brand, the proof is in the pudding.

Today, BP is at the exact moment when it needs to commit in a larger way to its environmentally friendly positioning or back away. This means that, every day, every minute, they have to put the environment first. It’s not just about acting swiftly and professionally with respect to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but they have to become better than “best in class”, they have to become “world class”. They have to do many things: invent and employ new innovations in environmental safety, lead responsible environmental thinking in their industry, make this topic the compelling issue they face across everything they do, become open and transparent about what they are doing in the face of corporate lawyers who will try to keep them walled off.

The company has a recent history of not being environmentally friendly. Remember the Texas City Oil refinery explosion of 2005, or Prudhoe Bay oil spill of 2006, and recently the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. This backdrop puts their current positioning continually under the magnifying glass. We are smart enough to understand that, with any technology, things happen. It is impossible to prevent all catastrophes. And yes, there is enough blame for BP, its suppliers and government regulators to share in terms of the recent spill. But BP can get past this issue as long as it demonstrates, in big, hairy and tangible terms, that it is a leader in anticipating and solving these problems.

However, the culture of the oil industry has not been one of getting ahead of issues like these. It will be up to the current Board and management team to see if they can truly become the leader their positioning demands, or whether they collapse into being just another oil company. If that’s the case, they will absolutely have to reposition themselves in a new way.