When I discovered my latest blog entry would be published in mid-June, I thought there was no way that another article on BP could still be relevant. Well, unfortunately, I was wrong.
Amazingly, BP continues to oversaturate, among other channels, the news cycle. In the past few months, heated discussion and debate have honed in on BP’s dividends, its seemingly out-of-touch CEO, and the US government response to the environmental crisis in the Gulf.
Today, I chime in with another angle to this tragic saga: differentiating BP as ‘commodity’ from BP as ‘brand.’
While growing up in Cincinnati, I remember seeing a gas station that sat at the bottom of a hill near my house called Sohio, Standard Oil of Ohio; it didn’t get any more American than Mr. John D. Rockefeller. And in the early-1990s, long after its merger with a company called British Petroleum, this once-quaint Sohio station became BP. Its new green & yellow sign couldn’t have appeared more foreign. So much for good ‘ol (or, is it good oil?) Americana.
The product remained the same, but the brand experience had changed completely. Inevitably, over time, this new BP station became my brand. I bought my first set of baseball cards, filled up my first tank of gas, and picked up my first six-pack right there. Am I alone in my attachments to the BP brand experience? Will other American consumers abandon this behemoth altogether? As an all-encompassing brand, I would argue, yes—BP is clearly in big trouble with consumers like me—but as a petroleum product, it is relatively safe.
So does BP the brand actually matter? Maybe.
Like the three T’s (Tylenol, Toyota, and Tiger), BP has work to do. It is, however, lucky to be in a business that is almost completely driven by price and real estate, not brand. Interestingly enough, BP has survived disasters in the past and just last year, was again ranked the #1 petroleum brand in South Africa. And what about the other notable case study in oil company hubris and resuscitation? In 1989, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, 20% of Exxon’s customers staged a “boycott,” and yet only 3-7% stopped frequenting it.
In a country full of “save money, live better” shoppers, BP will likely continue to capture our wallets, without having to capture our hearts and minds. But I think I’ll buy my baseball cards elsewhere.