The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 wasn’t BP’s worst PR disaster; that honor goes to its “beyond petroleum” rebranding, and it’s relevant again now that it has bought nearly half of Europe’s largest solar company.

Back in mid-2000, BP debuted a $200 million branding campaign intended to position it as a forward-looking, environmentally-friendly business. There were arty commercials, magazine ads, redesigned pumps and service stations, and a new logo that embodied the brand’s new meaning: beyond petroleum. Subsequent ads touted “a conversation” about energy issues.

It was a marketing success. Surveys said BP was “the greenest” of oil companies. The campaign won top honors from the American Marketing Association in 2007, and topped the list of the world’s most accountable companies that same year. The company claimed its brand awareness went from 4% to 67%.

Only the campaign was a lie.

Sure, BP had quit the Global Climate Coalition in 1997 (a propaganda outfit focused on denying climate change that disbanded in 2001), but it did little else to effect any transition beyond petroleum. It made incrementally small investments in a few alternate energy companies, but spent far more money buying oil rights in Iraq, and exploiting dirty oil resources in Canada’s tar sands. It racked up the industry’s worst record for spills, much of it attributed to employee error or management negligence.

John Browne, the company’s chairman, announced it would invest $8 billion in alternative energy, but then reported expenditures combined with the development of gas, and sold off most of the technology (or locked it away). It shuttered its alt energy HQ in London in 2009.

“BP’s ‘beyond petroleum’ shtick was one of the greatest PR moves of all time, but it never amounted to anything,” said environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Then, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and setting off the largest oil spill in history.

The value of corporate reputations is best evidenced, if not only relevant, in times of crisis, whether large or small. This is especially true in commodity industries like oil, where winning marketing awards doesn’t allow one service station to charge more than another.

But a good reputation can help customers overlook shortcomings in service, and inspire them to buy again. It means consumers can trust that a malfunction will get fixed. If a company has a performance issue, its reputation can give investors confidence that there isn’t a deeper problem within the business, and lead them to expect a speedy recovery.

If brands are a promise of future value, reputation is a measure of its present worth. They’re bookends to the continuum of every corporate communications strategy.

The Deepwater Horizon spill revealed that BP’s brand and reputation were collectively worth $0…

Read the entire essay at Medium

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