Sunday, June 6, 2010

Just Hanging the Greenwashing Out To Dry

Sometimes it seems that there have been two versions of BP. One that chronicles the company’s actions over the years, and one that portrays the identity they aspire to hold in our minds. The first is the product of reality. The second is the product of Ogilvy & Mather.

To say an advertising agency can transform and define the corporate identity of the fourth largest company in the world suggests two things: we, the public, yearn for good-news narratives; and, Ogilvy & Mather is pretty good at what it does.

But, the “holisitic” transformation of BP that some in the marketing industry found remarkable is now unraveling. Like the conspicuous reformer who returns to his high school reunion in a hybrid, spouting truisms of Doctor Phil and proclaiming enlightenment, we’ve seen what’s in the trunk: a few million gallons of crude oil and a rap sheet lined with felonies, price manipulation, destruction of livelihoods, and life itself.

But, we need gas.

And, what strikes me and perhaps many other people as we've watched with agony the continuing destruction of life in the Gulf, is that while it’s easy to vilify BP, it’s hard to think of a world in which we did not buy what it sells.

Well, maybe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tales it’s been selling--the image of BP we’ve seen in the commercials over the years, and how these may have affected the public’s response to the company’s actions.

I do not live near a BP gas station. Their ads never have, and never would, influence me in terms of where I buy gas. But, what about my inclination to get involved or not get involved in the politics of what the company has done? Certainly the “green” re-branding of BP after it merged with Amoco and acquired other companies about a decade ago was part of this larger strategy of mollification.

“We had two tasks,” BP spokesperson Kathy Leech says in the textbook, Contemporary Marketing, by Louis Boone and David Kurtz. “The first was informative. We had to let people know who BP was. The second was positioning. The goal was to lift BP from the negative aura that surrounds energy companies in the mind of the public. We positioned ourselves as a different kind of energy company.”

The rebranding of BP over the past several years got a lot of attention by those in the business because, if nothing else, it was bold.

A 2006 story in Brandweek by Wendy Melillo and Steve Miller talks about BP’s positioning. It was three years into Ogilvy & Mather’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign emphasizing wind power and solar energy that the company was seen as striving aggressively for the “green title”. They were, in fact, early off the starting block, getting what one member of the branding effort called, “first-mover advantage.”

“Beyond Petroleum” had one problem, though, according to another source quoted in the Brandweek article, an expert in green image consulting. BP still got most of its revenue from...well...petroleum.

Still, BP moved forward, attempting to counter what the BP spokesperson called “cynicism” in the article in the Contemporary Marketing. They did this by creating an ad campaign that featured real people in “unscripted” situations.

Remember “BP on the Street?”

After testing the ads in Chicago, New York, DC, and London they fine-tuned them. The ads had the feeling of being impromptu, but the product was actually very nuanced. Eventually, they learned that viewers didn’t really want to hear too much negativity, and that those in England didn’t like listening to Americans, but Americans were fine listening to British accents. Germans, on the other hand, didn’t even like the “person” on the street. They wanted an “expert.”

Finally, BP narrowed in on their best target audience: opinion holders. They defined these as people who vote, who fellow decisions made by congress, who may even write to their representatives.

Kathy Leech of BP, said in the textbook, “You can’t reach everyone...Instead we target people who are more informed, who other people go to for their information.”

But, what information did we, the opinion holders, actually have?

Whatever BP told us.

Unless we looked to other sources besides the commercials. Where were they? Probably right in front of us.

Curtis Verschoor, a Research Professor Fellow in the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University in Chicago, and Research Scholar in the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University outside of Boston, wrote a piece, “Is BP an Acronym for Big Polluter?” that appeared in Strategic Finance in 2007.

He goes beyond examining the well-crafted marketing strategy and re-imagined BP icon of yellow and green, and looks at the company’s own stated core values and Code of Conduct. He then compares these written ideals with the company’s actions.

Verschoor cites the BP Code of Conduct in relation to health, safety, security and the environment: “We are committed to the protection of the natural environment, to the safety of the communities in which we operate, and to the health, safety and security of our people.” He cites BP’s Sustainability Report of 2006, which, “states that BP’s commitment goes beyond compliance with laws and regulation to act as a ‘progressive operator’.”

The company’s actions: In reference to the spills in Alaska in 2006, he says BP had “convinced the prominent consulting firm Booz Allen to remove references to cost cutting from its report that described the cause of the inadequate maintenance.” He cites allegations of “various safety and environmental concerns from a purchaser of a BP facility in Joliet”, saying the type of disrepair found was understood by those who look into those matters (US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board) to be systemic—likely to be widespread practices and not indicative of an isolated situation.

And, then he moves onto the BP refinery plant in Whiting, Indiana, a plant built in 1889 (yes, 1889) which BP (in 2007) was planning to expand, resulting in the addition of “54% more ammonia and 35% more sludge into Lake Michigan.” Verschoor speaks of the fact that BP was able to get around a provision in the Clean Water Act (prohibiting a downgrade in water quality near a pollution source even if discharge limits aren’t exceeded) by adding a mixing zone, and getting “the first-ever exemption” by regulators.

How did they respond to the public outcry?

Ads in the newspaper.

Sound familiar?

According to an article in Business Week earlier this week, the state’s environmental protection agency is reviewing permits for the plant's expansion “independent of the spill (in the Gulf)." BP has $1.69 billion a year to gain—while Lake Michigan, it would appear, has much to lose.

But, BP is hardly alone in what it has done to portray itself as green. Moving beyond petroleum,  to companies of all kinds, an “opinion holder” is bound to feel overwhelmed by the number of marketing campaigns targeting those who want to be environmentally conscious. The Federal Trade Commission is now looking into greenwashing claims with more zeal.

An April 2010 story in The Wall Street Journal, “'Green’” Goods, Red Flags", by Vanessa O’Connell, says the FTC has recently accused companies in recent months of:

“Adding self-designed labels that imply their products have won some third-party seal of approval; touting their products as biodegradable when there is little chance they would actually decompose in a landfill; and labeling rayon fabric—created from tree cellulose processed with a chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants---as made of bamboo, which is merely substituted for the wood fiber.”

Besides the 78 retailers warned that labeling rayon as bamboo fabric could lead to civil suits, there is the case of Wayne Koh, who filed a class action suit against the maker of Windex, claiming the “Greenlist” trademark on the bottles appeared to be bestowed by a third party, and was therefore misleading. (There is an interesting discussion of this, and an “uptick” in greenwashing lawsuits, on: Green Patent Blog. )

It’s hard to find time to read the fine print, and the world is complicated. But, I am starting to feel that accidents do happen. But, just not in marketing.

So, why was it that until last month, the only thing I could tell you about BP was the color scheme of their logo? What on earth have I been doing? With the help of Wikipedia, I decided to try to find out.

September 1999: BP subsidiary BP Exploration Alaska agreed to pay $22 million for the actions of a contractor, Doyon Drilling, which dumped waste oil, paint thinner and other hazardous substances on Endicott Island, Alaska from 1993-1995.

I was in college during these years and probably reading Ibsen and/or scoping out frat boys. I am not sure if those are good excuses, but certainly, if violations of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation Liability Act had been posted near the frozen yogurt machine at the student union, I’d have read them.

2005: Texas City Refinery Explosion: When this refinery exploded, injuring 180 people and killing 15, it was not the first time the plant had troubles. After pleading guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, and paying $50 million and enduring a three year probation, BP apparently failed to correct the problems, was cited for 270 old and unfixed violations and 439 new ones in 2009.

Let’s see, in March of 2005 I was having early labor pains and trying to assemble a bassinet. Still, a column filled with hydrocarbon, overflowing to form a vaporous cloud, that then exploded, should have caught my attention.

August 2006: Operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska shut down because of the corrosion in the pipelines leading up to the Alaska Pipeline. Over one million liters of oil spilled. May 2007: leaks of water at separation plant. October 16, 2007: toxic spill of methanol (methyl alcohol) at Prudhoe Bay oil field—2,000 gallons of substance (used to clear ice from Arctic-based pipelines) reported by Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

These 14 months coincide with the second year of our first-born’s life, which means my husband and I were not functioning as lucid adults. In fact, most of this timeframe is an absolute blank. However, after checking on Wikipedia, one news item of that time jogged my memory, and assured me I was not abducted by aliens, just lulled into idiocy by cable news: yes, Mel Gibson got a DWI.

2006-2008: Three horrific accidents to workers at the Texas City Refinery (the same one cited above): one worker electrocuted, one crushed, and one struck by a 500 piece of metal.

I’m not going to make a remark about my whereabouts on this one—this is too sad, given the prior violations.

October 2007: Propane Price manipulation. BP paid $303 million, with four BP energy traders in Houston charged with manipulating prices of propane.

I do remember this month, and was keeping an obsessively precise calendar. Any woman reading this will know why, but for the rest, see next section.

2008: Oil Price Manipulation: Stemming back to artificially high prices in 2008, this fine was levied in May 2010 against TNK/BP for $35 million by the Supreme Court of Arbitration of the Russian Federation.

Hey, In May of 2010 I was watching coverage of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, so I don’t know how I missed this. But, in 2008, I was taking care of a newborn, and like so many other mothers, neglected to monitor the oil prices in Russia.

The comparison of the old BP Logo with the New One. According to one advertizing blog,, this new logo is the work of Landor Associates.

Lunch Box Mom Podcast, to be posted later this week: Interview with Elizabeth Reitman Waller, who writes the blog, 366 Days of Eric.


Anonymous said...

such orginial reporting and clear writing!

Tim Morrissey said...

You've slipped the knife to BP gently, Sarah. Excellent post.