BP’s false green brand likely played a significant role in causing the Deepwater Horizon spill itself—blinding its executives to the outrageous liabilities in the firm’s ultra-risky exploration strategy, making them believe that they were the “good guys,” regardless of mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Why did BP’s leaders fall so completely under the spell of groupthink? Blame it, in large part, on the success of Beyond Petroleum and Ogilvy’s brilliant ad campaign. It is beyond question that John Browne’s inspired Beyond Petroleum campaign cast BP convincingly as global good guys. Customers believed it, and they made BP the most highly rated gasoline brand. Investors believed it and gave the company implausibly high risk ratings. The queen of England believed it. And most tragically, so did Browne and Tony Hayward. Mesmerized by their own saintliness, BP’s leaders felt free to engage in far riskier adventures than other, less-pious oil companies would ever dare attempt.
BP’s powerful empowerment-marketing strategy created a valuable community of customers, but it also created an overly cohesive leadership team, blind to its own faults. Lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems would come crashing down as a result. So would one of the most valuable brand images of the twenty-first century. Hayward was shocked, and that’s likely because he was just as fooled by Beyond Petroleum as anyone else.
While few companies have the power to generate profits or tragedy on the scale of BP, every marketer can learn from the oil giant’s giant error. Creating a story strategy based on higher values that have little or nothing to do with the operational values of your brand puts you on a razor’s edge.