Why BP can’t get beyond British Petroleum

There is growing displeasure in Britain over the use of the name “British Petroleum” by top federal officials in the United States.

And as the Economist charts below, the American press has taken to calling the firm British Petroleum since April to stress Britain’s role in the disaster, even though the company was renamed BP in 2001.

Fair or not, the oil company is, undeniably, very British in terms of a public persona defined in no small measure by its ruddy-cheeked CEO Tony Hayward. Indeed, he has come to personify BP: petulant, out-of-touch, inept and unmistakably British when he opens his mouth. It doesn’t help the hapless oil executive that he also bears a unfortunate resemblance to Michael Sheen (he’s the one on the right), the actor who made his career playing arrogant British SOBs in movies such as Frost/Nixon, The Queen and The Damned United.

British Petroleum or BP, the concern is that its woes may also reflect badly on British firms doing business in America. Enter Bob Dudley, BP’s managing director who has taken over day-to-day responsibility for managing the company’s oil spill response from Tony Hayward. Temperamentally, at least, he seems better suited to deal with the situation. He is also American; his accent may go some way to help BP rebrand itself beyond British, if not beyond petroleum.

As a footnote to this post, it is interesting to learn how many people believe “Beyond Petroleum” to be the actual name of the oil company. Witness the following:

“BP changed its name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. Our statistics suggest that even though BP has changed its name to Beyond Petroleum in the recent years, much of the public still thinks BP stands for British Petroleum and not Beyond Petroleum. Though the company changed its former name “British Petroleum” to Beyond Petroleum after merger with Amoco, it comes out that people were not aware of Beyond Petroleum till the BP Oil Disaster struck the Gulf of Mexico” : http://tinyurl.com/3yyfcbh

Yes BP, you are an oil company, too

 “Yes, we are an oil company. But right now we are also providing natural gas, solar, hydrogen, geothermal. Because we live on this planet, too.”

No, this is not part of a mea culpa from BP. It’s a couple of lines from a Chevron ad, and one which BP would do well to consider emulating given the situation they are in.

With smart and refreshing directness, Chevron’s “Human Energy” TV ad from McGarry Bowen makes the case for oil and an oil company better than it has ever been made.

Actor Campbell Scott narrates the 150 second spot that unapologetically states Chevron’s case and its position in the global energy debate as an oil company searching for solutions.

“…today, tomorrow and the foreseeable future, our lives demand oil. But what’s also true is that we can provide it more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully”.


It is in marked contrast to BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign. Chevron seeks to explain and educate; BP tries to obfuscate.

The problem with the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign for me is that it has always smacked of rebranding spin. Why? Because BP is, undeniably, an oil company. And a very big one at that. Like Chevron, BP is one of the world’s six oil majors, along with ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Total of France.

Any attempt to deny that fact, or at least mask it, was bound to tempt fate in an industry in which major shit happens, as with the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas, and the Alaska oil pipeline leak a year later. Now, with oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico unabated and officials giving no indication that the flow can be contained soon, BP is unfortunately up to its oily neck in an imminent environmental disaster. Any lingering credibility attached to its pretense of being an energy company that has gone beyond petroleum has been deep-sixed along with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

Hold the oil

The “Beyond Petroleum” campaign was born opportunistically out of BP’s merger with Amoco in 1998.

Back then, BP was British Petroleum. After a brief but respectable period as BP Amoco, the company was recast in 2000 as plain BP. Replete with its elegant, Landor-designed sunburst logo, the intent was to send the message that the company was looking past oil and gas toward a benign, eco-friendly future of solar and renewable energy.

John Browne, the CEO at the time, wanted to position BP as a broader energy company, not just an oil company, ahead of the looming issues of climate change, energy security and supply scarcity. Just as all oil companies are now attempting to do, he saw it as a way to “gain a seat at the table, a chance to influence future rules.”

The slogan “Beyond Petroleum” was a clever if specious way of utilizing the initials ‘BP’ to emphasize they no longer stood for British Petroleum. “Better people, better products, big picture, beyond petroleum” went the alliterative mantra.

But idea was pushed way beyond the bounds of its limits.  BP’s ill-advised attempt to position itself beyond  the petroleum sector on the basis of its laudable but marginal investments in renewables is rather like China claiming to be “Beyond Communism” because it now owns capitalist Hong Kong. It is a huge stretch of a small, albeit desirable, truth.

How can an oil company be ”Beyond Petroleum” without actively distancing itself from its core product? It’s a very hard sell when your  logo is emblazoned on 10,000 gas stations in the US alone and the vast majority of your profits come from the black stuff.

BP has really tried to clean up its act over the last few years. How the company extricates itself from its current predicament will be proof enough of whether we are seeing a new BP.

One thing it can do is finally move beyond “Beyond Petroleum” and talk about the business it is in with conviction, not what business it isn’t in.