A Rebranding Effort Betrayed

Discussion
Jul 30, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

A recent editorial in Advertising Age explored ethics around branding,
particularly an individual’s responsibility to make sure those messages somewhat
ring true.

As a former copywriter for BP, Martin Torres has a guilt complex.

Mr. Torres wrote that in 2001, British Petroleum changed its name to BP and rebranded itself as a “concerned global energy company.” People
were openly encouraged to communicate with the company on ways to balance environmental
issues with energy needs. As the digital copywriter at OgilvyInteractive, Mr.
Torres and his art director managed how that dialogue was weaved on the web.

Mr. Torres said he bought into the BP’s eco-commitment, transparency and progressiveness
— even defending the company in conversations.

“Like many of us who spend eight to 12 hours a day building brands, I
believed in the story I was helping to craft, no matter how small my contribution
was,” wrote Mr. Torres. “I believed in the ‘radical openness’ that
they wanted to portray.”

While, like many, he was horrified by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he also “felt
personally betrayed by BP” because the environmental failings and lack
of transparency contradicted those rebranding efforts. Mr. Torres was particularly
interested in exploring his own complicity in crafting that message and the
advertiser’s responsibility.

As someone who worked on Joe Camel in the early ’90s, Mr. Torres said he wasn’t
discussing brands “in which we are fully aware of the nature of their
business” but brands claiming to be doing good.

“We rely on the information we are given from our clients,” said
Mr. Torres. “So is this just a hazard of the business? As marketers, should
we ever question the information we are given? Should we ever question the
validity of facts? Should we require proof? What exactly is our responsibility
so that we don’t wind up feeling like co-conspirators?”

He questioned whether these situations are just part of the advertising game.

Mr. Torres concluded, “All I know is that like the wildlife on the Gulf,
I’m feeling pretty oily right now. But in the meantime, I’ll be continuing
to do the best by the brands I work on and try to keep myself on the right
side of the truth.”

Discussion Questions: Has BP’s “beyond petroleum” positioning
as a new type of energy company caused more damage to its reputation than
had it communicated a traditional oil company message? Should Martin Torres
feel misled? Did he have a responsibility to make sure the messages he was
helping to create were factual?

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15 Comments on "A Rebranding Effort Betrayed"


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David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 9 months ago
Rebranding is a creative and fun process but often the people behind the efforts become overly creative which ultimately ruins all the fun. Except for the comedians who will have LOTS of fun. BP’s “beyond petroleum” image is now soon to be a classic example. 1. It’s best to take the rebranding process to its most simplistic and clear level. 2. Don’t understate nor overstate the brand’s true capabilities. 3. Avoid the potential erroneous zones and ironies that will be sure to backfire one Monday morning before you get out of bed. 4. Your rebranding message needs to be appropriately relevant to your product and to 99% of the consumers that will purchase your product. Avoid being too cryptic, cute, or clever. You will get compliments from your mother and friends but your sales will suffer. 5. Don’t copy someone else’s message. Consumers will become confused. Unless that happens to be your goal! Leave the rebranding to the experts. And by the way, experts are usually people who are not close friends nor related to… Read more »
Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
10 years 9 months ago

One needs to be cognizant of the perceptual maps of the end users, the market and how your positioning, PR and marketing efforts are in tune with and or influence the aforementioned areas. We need to make sure we are not mendacious in our marketing efforts, especially in this era of ever-present news media.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 9 months ago

Any time a company claims to be one thing, only to prove to be something else, it’s potentially damaging–especially on this scale.

As far as the branding/marketing agency’s ethical responsibility to be truthful…I think to some extent we’ve always accepted the fact that “advertising” is often a bending or manipulation of the truth. I also believe that those days are gone.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
10 years 9 months ago
As we enter season 4 of Mad Men, this is a great question. “Better living through chemistry.” “Wonderbread helps build strong bodies twelve ways.” These slogans are not profound statements of truth. The advertising industry is what it is. It exists to incent us to buy things. It’s easy to say we should only build brands we believe in, but the truth is, full investigation is probably not possible. Plus, the easiest person to sell is a salesman. Besides…what BP did at every step of this disaster (both before it and during its 100 days to date) is beyond unconscionable. No one could have anticipated that what was called 4,000 barrels a day was really 60,000…no one could have believed that fire alarms had been turned off so the crew wouldn’t be disturbed, that more than 20 warnings were ignored, and no one could believe that there was no disaster planning in place. The real issue at hand isn’t that BP was advertising falsely, it’s that no one was paying attention to what the company… Read more »
Alison Chaltas
Guest
Alison Chaltas
10 years 9 months ago

BP’s agencies should feel betrayed, as should all of us, particular those on the Gulf Coast. The problem lies not in the lack of alignment between marketing and the real position of the company. The problem lies in a company that built a culture more focused on sales than safety.

Certainly, marketers shouldn’t place more importance (or in this case blame) on our function, strategies, and programming than we deserve. This was not a marketing problem. We have to take the word of the client senior management, operations and legal that they are doing their job too and what we are saying is true. The BP agencies and marketing team did a terrific job of delivering a simple, innovative, relevant message around a “new type of energy company” that resonated around they world. Tragically, the original strategy and direction was not feasible and the environment and community are paying the price.

Phil Rubin
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

As the old adage goes, “agencies make recommendations and clients make decisions.” The recommendations from agencies like Mr. Torres’ are based on input from clients. Clients pay top dollar for these recommendations so it’s also in their best interest to provide the best input possible. If BP provided BS (which we know they have, at least in the aftermath of the spill!) to Ogilvy in terms of input then that’s what Ogilvy had to work with. Of course they could have developed another concept or perhaps BP simply didn’t execute what they intended to do or they could have resigned the business.

Sure there is plenty of guilt available given the magnitude of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Having grown up in New Orleans and seen the aftermath of Katrina it is painful to see this latest man-made debacle.

But let’s be clear, this should not be about Mr. Torres’ guilt, it should be about the responsibility of companies–clients and agencies included–to do the right thing, be truthful and be accountable.

Kevin Price
Guest
Kevin Price
10 years 9 months ago

The vast majority of brands are built based not on what they say but on what they do. The possible exceptions–Coke or Pepsi, and especially many of the beer brands–are a small, small minority of all the brands out there.

Certainly, the copywriter has no reason to feel misled. BP screwed up big-time and that’s what everyone will remember. The only real question is whether BP, as a brand, should even bother to revitalize itself. If it were me, I wouldn’t even try (given both the disaster itself and, more importantly, the damage done by BP’s ‘response’).

If BP remains independent, I see a GMAC->Ally Bank change in their future.

Salvador Romo
Guest
Salvador Romo
10 years 9 months ago

I am coming into this comment fully aware that I am not an expert on the subject.

Still, my impression of BP, as a consumer,is very bad. I am sensitive to the issue, because I completely trusted their message.

For example, I encourage my family to fill up in BP gas stations, and use their products. I wanted them to be successful because I rationalized that if they were, other companies in the industry might follow them.

To learn the sad reality was disappointing; I guess we should know better and not be so naive, but that raises the question then; whom can you trust?

Brian Kelly
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

BP will not see long-term damage. And the tagline reflected a series of acquisitions that altered its business model. In the end, BP, in combination and collaboration with a wide range of partners, extracts crude oil from the planet, processes it and markets it. We’ll see how it migrates to other sources of energy.

Last time I checked, O&M’s world wide plaza was not a church. The business of agencies is to sell. In fact O&M has used the line, “we sell or else.” I wonder who sold BP the tagline?

Betrayal? Bah! Life happens. Especially at a mile below the surface of the ocean, amongst three partners innovating another method to satisfy the American consumer’s addiction to oil.

Advertising, like retail, ain’t for sissies.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

“As someone who worked on Joe Camel in the early ’90s…”

Although I don’t imagine the article was intended to be satirical, this line effectively reduced Mr. Torres and his flexible conscience to the level of farce. As for the more general issue of truth in branding, there will always be people who will say and do anything to make a sale. Is it wrong? Sure. Will it continue nonetheless? Yes.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

While trying not to sound toooo self-righteous, I find it difficult to believe in the 21st century (as opposed to the 1960s) that people working for advertising agencies don’t know and accept what is expected of them. They choose to take the client’s cash and to pay whatever price is extracted in exchange. Maybe some of them are deaf, blind and stupid but trying to claim, after the event, that they have been hornswoggled is a bit much.

Bob Houk
Guest
Bob Houk
10 years 9 months ago

I agree with notcom about this guy’s ‘flexible conscience’–this looks like an effort to get some personal publicity through a public display of PC angst.

That said–re BP: Nobody likes a hypocrite. A public official who is caught in an affair will be damaged by it. If he has made his personal moral values a major part of his brand image, then he’ll be hurt twice as badly.

Lesson (not a new one): Branding needs to reflect reality.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

I am confident Mr. Torres did not return his Joe Camel or BP checks after his guilt took hold. I also wonder if this is his way of saying “not me, they did it.”

The marketers and brand creators have a responsibility to be honest and portray the companies in the best and most ethical manner. They certainly don’t know what happens behind the closed doors. And I do not think Mr. Torres knew what the real truth was when he began the rebranding campaign.

Marketers, Advertisers and Salespeople all want to believe what they are told is the truth, the whole truth, etc.

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Like a lawyer that refuses to ask a client whether they are guilty or not — and we all shake our collective fingers at them — the same should be the case with rebranders. “The Experience is the Brand” has been my platform for over twelve years. I ask my clients how they intend to fulfill the promise of their tag line, or how they bring their motto to life for the end user. If they can’t, let’s come up with one they can live up to.

Steven Collinsworth
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

You can only work with what you are given. The questions need to be presented to the client to gain additional understanding. (The analyst in me always and I repeat always asks the questions, “Why?” and “Why Not?”)

As for BP, it does appear the company was not in alignment from top to bottom. Most companies today are the same way (as the cynic in me thinks).

The fact is, the other oil companies were helping with the spill in the Gulf, knowing well they could be in the same situation as BP. If it was Chevron, Shell, etc, they would have been just as vilified as BP was and is still.

We can only guess at this point what could have been with a better PR effort than what BP had displayed.

Every company should be able to learn something from this unfortunate incident.

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