Thursday, August 5, 2010

If you make it, don't break it

Six months ago, we wrote about Toyota and its Brand Bank Account. We asserted that Toyota’s strong brand equity – built by making a brand promise and consistently keeping it year-after-year – allowed Toyota to weather its quality crisis better than a brand with lower equity would have. Toyota didn’t go “into the red” reputationally, because its pre-crisis brand equity was so strong.

Now we have another brand in crisis – BP. Of course, the sheer magnitude of the damage BP caused is enormous. And BP execs committed PR gaffes that will go down in the annals of P.R. media training “don’t do this” case studies. But there is also a brand issue in play that all brands – large or small – can learn from: don’t make a brand promise unless you are really, really, REALLY committed to not breaking it.

In 2000, BP re-branded itself from British Petroleum to its initials, which the company asserted stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” It positioned itself as the green “energy” (not oil) company, and it appeard to be living up to its promise. People were excited and pulling for BP to succeed. And the competitors were wondering about how to respond. (I know, because I was in the room with some of those competitors.)

The competitors weren’t prepared to make the kinds of brand promises that BP was making. They rightfully acknowledged that they needed to remain “traditional” oil companies while they evolved their businesses to embrace new forms of energy. They were right to be cautious, because as they were taking an evolutionary approach to their brands, BP was making promises about being green while consistently breaking those promises behind the scenes as it committed the vast majority of “egregious and willful” safety violations in the US industry.

Part (and only part) of the reason Americans are so unforgiving of BP right now is that they fell for BP’s promise to be a new kind of energy company, and then were betrayed when BP broke that promise in such a dramatic fashion. These “logo redesigns” tell the whole story. I suspect that, even though we would be broken hearted and angry, we would not be so vitriolic if any other oil company had been responsible for this spill.  We don't expect anything more from others -- they haven't asked us to.

The moral is: if you are not fully committed as an organization to keeping a brand promise, no matter how breakthrough it is and how much it appeals to consumers, don’t make the promise. We learned it in kindergarten, but apparently it didn’t catch on with BP – if you make a promise, don’t break it.

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