A decade ago, the company then known as British Petroleum launched a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to rebrand itself as the greenest of oil giants. Since then, it has gone only by the initials "BP" and has popularized a new slogan: "Beyond Petroleum." The campaign launched with a $200 million public relations and advertising budget and a new logo featuring the now-ubiquitous green-and-yellow sunburst. Ten years later, the company still spends big on advertising, dropping $76 million on radio and TV ads touting its image in the United States just last year.
The campaign has paid off for the company. A customer survey in 2007 found that BP had by far the most environmentally friendly image of any major oil company. That year, the "Beyond Petroleum" campaign also won the Gold Award from the American Marketing Association. The company reported that between 2000 and 2007, its brand awareness jumped from 4 percent to 67 percent and sales rose steadily.
But those hundreds of millions of dollars worth of green branding can't fortify the company against the environmental and public relations catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. At least 210,000 gallons of crude are hemorrhaging into the Gulf each day after the April 20 explosion and subsequent collapse of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, a blast that killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. In a worst-case scenario for the spill, it could gush up to 6 million gallons per day. The spill is already well on its way to eclipsing the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which dumped 10.8 million gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound and stands as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The spill has wiped out years of ad spending for the company -- but it has also highlighted how disingenuous much of that advertising was. Despite all BP has spent on rebranding, the company hasn't done nearly as much to move "beyond petroleum" as its campaign implies. In fact, BP has been turning away from investments in nonfossil energy, last year cutting investment in alternative sources from $1.4 billion to $1 billion. Weeks before the spill, BP announced that it was shuttering its solar manufacturing plant in Maryland. The company brought in $73 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2010, but only about $700 million of its business was alternative energy sources like wind and solar.
The company has also spent a lot of time and money convincing political leaders that offshore drilling is clean, safe, and environmentally friendly -- while at the same time actually fighting against safety measures that might have prevented the horror in the Gulf. Last September, David Rainey, a vice president at BP America in charge of Gulf of Mexico exploration, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to assure legislators that new technology enables "safe and reliable production" of offshore oil and gas and that "any release from our operations is unacceptable" and "rare."