A Line in the Branding Sand

August 9th, 2010
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My “Open Range” column from the August 2010 issue of Alberta Venture magazine:

The BP disaster shows that advertisers ignore authenticity at their customers’ peril

It was a widely hailed marketing coup, a much-talked-about case study and the biggest antler rack on the ad agency’s trophy wall. BP would no longer stand for the storied brand British Petroleum, but for Beyond Petroleum. In a world of climate change angst, becoming one with the green zeitgeist seemed a winner. Applying it to BP – new name, neo-pagan sun-disk-style logo, a prolonged PR campaign by the urbane English CEO, millions shovelled into politically correct foundations and lobbying to buy new friends and convey positions at odds with a global oil giant – was outsized in audacity, but not in concept. Pointing out it was BS wasn’t just in poor taste, it revealed your deafness to the era’s sensibilities.

Still, it was at heart a self-contradictory approach. Among the few things approximating a bedrock principle for the post-modern left is “authenticity.” In a relativistic world – where there’s no factual truth or falsehood, let alone right or wrong – one can’t be objectively good or bad. The best you can be is true to yourself – authentic. “Keepin’ it real” was a rallying cry before it became cliché. If realness is the singular goal, fakery’s a capital offence. And BP’s re-branding and new marketing were based on laughable improbabilities if not lies. Despite its alleged move “beyond” petroleum, BP’s crude production continued to grow.

If authenticity is postmodernism’s apotheosis, how could such a rebranding even occur? By colliding with two other leftist neo-virtues: the obsession with stated intentions or sentiments versus actions or outcomes (a dead give-away is today’s constant talk about “commitments”), and the environmentalist branch of all-encompassing political correctness. What counted for BP and its ad agency weren’t results, but the motivating sentiment. It wasn’t about actually moving beyond petroleum. It was about claiming you wanted to. It wasn’t a policy, it was a pose. Popular, though innately inauthentic.

Adopting poses creates three huge risks. First, public exposure. It’s a fine line between pose and fraud – and once you lose your audience, there’s no going back. The environmental movement was already lashing out against false claims or “greenwashing.” Now, the Deepwater Horizon disaster smashed BP’s environmentalist aura. Second, fashions change. U.S. voters have become enraged at the pending CO2 cap-and-trade law. BP (along with Enron) was an early, vocal promoter of cap-and-trade. Today, such corporatist parasitism is widely despised. BP’s decade of White House and Congressional lobbying lies in ruins.

Third, and most toxic, inauthenticity disconnects management from rank-and-file, which is profoundly demoralizing and potentially destructive. We’ll never know whether BP’s succession of safety disasters – the Texas refinery fire, the cracked North Slope pipelines and the Deepwater Horizon calamity – stemmed directly from former CEO Lord Browne’s years spent yammering about global warming. But it couldn’t have been great for recruitment or on-the-job dedication. BP’s attitude and performance both stand in sharp contrast to Exxon-Mobil’s, which remains unabashedly an oil company and, however hated, is a superb technical operator boasting Big Oil’s best safety record.

The same principles and pitfalls apply whether a company has 30 employees or 30,000 and whether the marketing budget is bazillions or barely enough for one ad. There are always fashionable causes and trends gyrating seductively in the marketplace of ideas. Exploiting them is tempting –and caters to intellectual laziness. It’s far less work for marketing/advertising people to concoct some link to a hot trend than to grind through learning the technicalities and substance of specialized industries and their complex niche products.

Say your company has developed a new process to capture solution gas in oil wells, or a new igniter for the relief/emergency flare on those same wells. Current fashion virtually dictates telling customers it’s a new way to “meet your greenhouse gas reduction commitments,” to “green your company” or perhaps to avoid government emissions penalties. Everything else – the technical specs, what makes it special, its cost-effectiveness, maybe that it resists corrosion years longer than the competition – hardly registers. Easy and superficially effective, but your product’s future hangs on outside political/sociological trends. So fashions evolve, priorities change, recession sets in and suddenly your customers only care about cost. To them, “green” products mean double the price for half the performance. Your sales collapse – even though what you produce is tougher, longer-lasting, more efficient and cheaper over its life cycle.

Tonight while you’re watching TV, instead of running to the fridge during commercials, pay attention to that new Mazda ad. Today’s automotive marketing is largely about fuel economy, safety and eco-friendliness. Mazda doesn’t make a Prius or Smart car. You won’t get far pretending 40 miles per gallon is better than 70. You’re not going to “out-hybrid” Toyota. You actually build sporty, agile, fun-to-drive cars. So how about remaining true to yourself? Show a guy planting a blue flag and write a script declaring, “… I will never sacrifice joy for the sake of practicality.” Brilliant, because it’s authentic. The ad also declares: “A line needs to be drawn in the pavement.” Few truer words were ever spoken in advertising. If you spend any time on marketing or advertising, you should print that in gigantic type and paste it to your wall. Remaining authentic and truthful seems like the harder road, but it’ll protect the integrity of your brand and reputation for now and in the long term. It’s good in and of itself – and it’s ultimately the pragmatic course.

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By George Koch