BP teaches us a lesson in humility

Whether you’re a Prime Minister who’s led a country into an illegal, ill-conceived war, or a multi-million pound footballer caught with your pants down while your pregnant wife’s out shopping, for many ‘sorry’ really is the hardest word; so credit where it’s due to that modern day pariah, BP.

Speaking at the International Advertising Association lunch this month, Luc Bardin, BP’s group sales and marketing chief, made a surprisingly candid and personal speech.

Addressing more than 200 international media and advertising executives, the Frenchman set the tone early with a disclaimer: “I’m not going to have a response as a marketer. I’m going to have a response as a person.”

He went on to talk for more than half an hour about his own “very physical and emotional time” working alongside some 60,000 BP employees in the Gulf of Mexico, “sleeves rolled up, feet on the ground and working in the trenches”.

Bardin referred to the spill as “a tragic accident” but wanted to stress how BP “has taken responsibility”.

Among the more surprising revelations during the crisis was that the usually very serious business of BP’s brand management was among the first things to slip from the radar. I guess when people have died, wildlife has suffered and coastlines have been decimated, as Bardin himself admitted, “it hardly matters, it hardly matters”.

Except of course, now the oil’s finally stopped and recriminations become more rationalised, it actually starts to become more of an issue.

Why wasn’t CEO Tony Hayward more media savvy? Why did the long-defunct ‘British Petroleum’ branding creep back into the lexicon? Why were there so many mixed messages in the early days? And, just as importantly, what is the plan going forward?

Bardin didn’t profess to having all the answers. He conceded “all components of the brand” were now being considered, but refused to commit to any ‘back to business’ marketing drive in the US or anywhere else.

“Actions are going to be much stronger than words,” he said, adding that “BP is a wonderful brand that will prove itself over time.”

But ‘time’ may be among the many things the fourth largest multi-national company in the world has lost along the way.

What has been even more disturbing than the raging, vitriolic media coverage and obligatory “I Hate Tony Hayward” Facebook page, has been the speed with which fellow marketers and commentators have written off the 100 year old brand.

Nowhere has this rapid descent been symbolised more clearly than in Interbrand’s annual league table, where BP tumbled more than 17 places to sit outside the global Top 100 for the first time since its inception.

The profound plummet in brand value has been tracked across the board, with consultancy Brand Finance calculating BP haemorrhaged an eye-watering $72m (£45m) worth of brand value every day between May and July after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

BP also officially revealed the biggest-ever quarterly loss by any British company of £11 billion.

It’s dangerous ground when your market value is considered to be substantially less than the sum of your parts. The vultures have already begun to circle in the anticipation of a fire-sale of BP’s oil wells, offices and equipment. Whisper it, but it really could be an effective way to end the pain.

Bardin will be more aware of such a potential quick-fix remedy than most, but his passion and focus remains.

“The brand belongs to the people, and a brand like BP belongs to all those who are associated with it in anyway,” he said. He added: “I think this organisation is distinctive in the way that people live what they are. The incident is absolutely shocking. It has been a blow to many people, including me.”

“We are going to continue to try and get it right. Stay true to what the brand is and who you are.”

He was only speaking at the event at all because he’d committed to attend before the Maconda disaster on 20 April. The fact that, many crazy months later, the father of four had honoured his commitment to the west London gig was to his credit.

But the marketer who, in addition to his sales and marketing remit is also responsible for BP’s colossal strategic partnerships like the Olympics, was under no illusions about the “massive task” ahead.

He was right to ask us “Did [the tragedy] mean that our brand and what it represents was bad? Does it mean that what many people in this world respected and valued was bad?”

Graham Hales, chief executive of Interbrand, believes BP’s future must now involve setting “realistic expectations” and ensuring it can live up to and deliver against them.

For his part, Bardin concluded with nothing short of an emotional plea: “I came here to share a passion for this brand. Help it please, it needs your belief.”

BP’s former chief Hayward was right about one thing: life really isn’t fair, and we all run the risk of stepping off the pavement one day and being hit by a bus. But let’s not forget that if you survive, how you bounce back will always be the clincher to the story.

On 17 September 2010, BP’s Luc Bardin didn’t make a bad start.