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When executives begin to believe their own hype.
By Jonah Sachs
Pushing past the journalists and shouting rabble outside his office, Tony Hayward begins to wonder if he has been silently transported to a perverse and personal hell. He appears to be in St. James Square on an average, overcast morning. He appears to be stepping into the same building he enters every weekday. This appears to be his life, except for one terrifying detail: Every television, every phone, every mouth around him has been enlisted as an instrument of his torment, spewing an endless flow of angry questions—questions no reasonable person could possibly answer.
“Mr. Hayward, how long until the well will be capped?”
“Mr. Hayward, will this spill be worse than the Valdez?”
“Mr. Hayward, will BP declare bankruptcy?”
If becoming the most hated man in the world just meant death threats and stones thrown by protestors, he could handle it. But it’s the questions that are beginning to drive him mad. He wishes he could simply ignore them. But he is condemned to give answers, knowing the only reward if he survives with his sanity intact will be one final question: “Mr. Hayward, when will you resign?”
He gets off at the sixth floor and steps into a conference room, nervously eyeing the executives who have gathered there, half expecting them to turn on him too. One of the attendees will later describe an icy stare coming from his boss’s once-open, boyish face. “You’re getting paranoid, Tony,” he thinks to himself. “You know these people. This is your team.”
He relaxes for a moment, and BP’s embattled CEO allows himself the luxury of asking a question of his own: “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”
Nobody dares to answer, but someone does scribble the question down and later will pass it off to a reporter. It is printed and reprinted millions of times over. In the months that follow, Tony Hayward, who runs what investigators would call the world’s most reckless and aggressive oil company, will be asked hundreds of times how he could have asked such a stupid question.
In fact, Hayward’s question wasn’t nearly as stupid as it may appear. Instead, it offers an important insight into the psychology of a man and a company that had fallen victim to its own deceptive empowerment marketing strategy. By telling the truth about the dangers of humanity’s dependence on oil and enlisting people to fight it, BP had risen to tremendous heights as the green-energy brand. It had also set itself up for a tremendous fall—and not only because the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill destroyed billions of dollars of green brand equity. Less appreciated, but perhaps more importantly, BP’s false green brand likely played a significant role in causing the 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.
Greenwash and Groupthink
By 1997, the audacious John Browne had fixed on the idea that he would create the world’s largest oil company—by exploration, acquisition, and branding. The British Petroleum CEO believed, many thought insanely, that customers could be taught to identify with a brand of gasoline. Browne knew that if this feat could be pulled off, it would give him an enormous competitive advantage as he acquired smaller companies, supercharged their sales with his brand, and rolled them up into an empire.
The inspiration for an iconic oil brand first occurred to Browne while he was serving on the board of Intel. He had been deeply impressed that a company that manufactured an essentially invisible product—a microchip—could become one of the world’s most recognizable brand names thanks to the clever “Intel Inside” campaign. “People don’t ask whether BP is inside,” he told Harvard Business Review. “Maybe someday they will.”
But the irrepressible executive had a tremendous uphill climb ahead of him. The public was reporting that they hated oil companies, and pumped their gasoline only grudgingly. Since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, anyone involved with the petroleum industry was seen as a villain. And with rising concern about climate change, the situation was only deteriorating. A major industry survey at the time found that motor fuels made up the absolute worst-performing category in terms of brand affinity.
Browne was ready to do something radical, and in 1997 he made an appearance at Stanford University, surrounded by solar panels, declaring that the evidence was irrefutable: There is a direct link between manmade greenhouse gases and climate change. Something must be done, now.
BP’s false green brand likely played a significant role in causing the spill itself.
Later that year, Browne dramatically withdrew British Petroleum from the Global Climate Coalition, an oil interest group devoted to questioning the science of climate change. All this was worthy of tremendous international attention and acclaim. It was a tectonic shift in the story wars—an oil company no longer resisting, but joining, the fight against climate change.
By 2000, changes to British Petroleum’s brand would be unmistakable and sweeping. The name was changed to BP and the new tagline, “Beyond Petroleum,” would serve as the firm’s de facto long-form name. The BP shield was replaced with a helios, a symbol of the sun that doubled as a flower. Browne would follow the rebrand with promises of multibillion-dollar investments in alternative energy and a pledge to cut his own company’s emissions drastically. The new look was all sunshine and optimism, and the ads that accompanied it followed a classic and hard-hitting empowerment marketing approach—so not surprisingly, they worked spectacularly.
BP was not asking audiences to believe they could consume their way out of the oil problem. That would have been seen as obvious greenwashing. Instead, BP’s creative team at Ogilvy & Mather decided to tell a deeper truth. The ad campaigns would call on audiences to engage in a conversation and a partnership with the brand in making tough choices and ultimately in creating solutions. The messages were far from feel-good, but they were tremendously inspiring.
“It wasn’t in the spirit of, ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads: We’ll get you the oil that you need,’” recalled Ogilvy’s North American chairman John Seifert of BP’s “On the Street” campaign. These celebrated ads featured everyday people grappling with the tough problem of oil dependence.
The Conference Board
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