Whither BP?

Should Amoco be standard? Can retailers distance themselves from Big Oil?

NEW YORK -- I had a nightmare last night. I saw Tiger Woods pull into a BP station in a Toyota!

If I had written that a year ago, it would have made no sense, but now it is a metaphor for the value of a brand and the perils of failing to maintain its integrity. Tiger turned out not to be as advertised. Toyota tried to cover up its problems. And you know the BP storyin fact many of you are living with it.

The problem with a great brand that falls off its pedestal is that, like Humpty Dumpty, it is very difficult to put it back together again. However, great brands [image-nocss] can survive serious problems, by acknowledging them fully and taking immediate, drastic actions to correct them.

An example happened 28 years ago, when seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules that had been pilfered from local stores, laced with cyanide and returned to the shelves in seemingly new condition. Before the cause was established, Johnson & Johnson halted production of all Tylenol products, recalled over $100 million worth of Tylenol that was in circulation, advertised warnings in the national media and, after the problem was resolved, exchanged all Tylenol already purchased by the public. Typical of the press coverage at the time, The Washington Post wrote: "Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster."

Since BP has so far pretty effectively demonstrated how a major business ought not to handle a disaster, the brand now has much more in common with Humpty Dumpty than with Tylenol. So what can dealers, who are suffering from the BP brand erosion simply because they fly the BP banner, do about this, short of either switching to another brand or de-branding? Here are some suggestions.

First, BP dealers who still advertise Amoco gasoline could take down the BP sign and emphasize Amoco. To me, rebranding from Amoco to BP was a bad decision from the start. At best, public acceptance of the BP brand could have been brought close (but not equal) to Amoco's long-established position as the most-respected gas brand in the United States. (Dual branding, with Amoco dispensers under the BP canopy, was a lame attempt to deal with this.) How could dealers switch back to Amoco? I don't know; but the ex-Amoco executive who now heads BP might well see it as a way to keep them in the fold.

Second, the public tars the independent business people who sell BP with the brush of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP dealers could band together in a campaign to promote themselves as independent community businesses. This might involve developing signage saying "We're not big oil. We're independent" and using it in advertising, public relations and support of local activities, sports teams, etc.

What could BP corporate do to salvage its market position and reputation in the United States, which is clearly damaged goods now and for the foreseeable future?

Here are two suggestions. First, they could assist dealers with a campaign to portray themselves as independent local businesses who are part and parcel of their respective communities.

Additionally, since BP in the U.S. is primarily comprised of components of the quintessentially American Standard Oil of a hundred years agonot the British company that its name impliesthey could change the name of their U.S. operations to Amoco.

While the BP name is soiled here, this has not been linked by the public with the brands that BP replaced, so it would be quite logical to change the company name back to its most-respected brand, and resume doing business under the Amoco name, without associating it with BP. After all, if you can't put Humpty Dumpty together again, maybe you can put him into a new (I hate to say it) shell.Watch for more on this issue in theSeptember issue of CSP magazine.
Gerald Lewis is a veteran industry consultant and columnist for CSP magazine. Do you agree or disagree with Gerald? Email your comments to CSP Group Editor Mitch Morrison at [email protected].