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Will BP Walk the Walk?

Thinly veiled PR ploys, corporate-image ads and traditional notions of CSR-as-afterthought are outmoded. As one brand consultant puts it, “corporate sheen is dead.” Unfortunately, most marketers are still hanging out at the wake, too drunk and reminiscing about the good ole days to realize their consumers (and other stakeholders) are light years ahead of them.

So, when I first saw the re-branded BP Amoco brand unveiled a few years back, including their new tagline “Beyond Petroleum,” and their incredibly well-done, tree-hug-inducing logo, you can understand my skepticism.

BP, one of the world’s largest petroleum companies, telling us they’re about more than just oil? C’mon. Really? It’s one thing to say you’re a forward-thinking energy company exploring innovations that will have a directly disruptive impact on your own core product. But to actually be that company is something else entirely.

BP seems to be doing their best to win over skeptics like me. They’ve committed $8 billion to fund alternative energy research over the next decade. I caught a recent segment on News Hour with Jim Lehrer featuring in-depth coverage of BP’s $500 million contribution to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to advance alternative energy sources. (This feel-good news was perfect timing for the company given the recent scandal involving BP’s ex-CEO and a male escort ).

Corporate philanthropy to the tune of $500 million is enough to cause Friedman to roll over in his grave. But don’t get the warm and fuzzies just yet.

BP will own a chunk of the IP that comes out of the lab. And, as critics claim , the company will likely have a shadow hand in guiding the research to best suit the company’s long-term interests. Furthermore, one can’t help but realize the obvious: If BP doesn’t promote a culture of innovation surrounding alternative energy sources, the company is ultimately doomed to failure anyway.

Obviously BP’s contribution to Berkeley and its other ventures in alternative energy aren’t altruistic. But so what? If the reinvented BP translates to operations long term, and the tagline is indeed more than just feel-good fluff, we’ll ALL benefit in the long run – regardless of BP’s underlying motives.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not nave enough to think a major player in the global petroleum industry isn’t talking out of both sides of its mouth. They’ve done some terrible things in the past (i.e. human rights abuses in Colombia and Azerbaijan ). And apparently they’re still no angels .

But when overriding social interests and long-term corporate interests intersect on an issue such as global warming, a brand should leverage that opportunity to its full potential. After all, you don’t need to have unselfish motives to make a difference – and a tidy profit in the process.

The big question at the end of the day: Will BP walk the walk? Or will the re-branded BP and its “Beyond petroleum” end up being mere window dressing? If it’s the former, BP will have pulled off one of the most commendable corporate re-brandings of all time. But forgive me for still being a skeptic.



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