Branding at the Pump

BP shines brighter than other gasoline brands

When I was small, I assumed that if my parents filled the car with one brand of gasoline that was the brand that had to be used all the time. The different gasoline brands must have contained different ingredients, because the car would stop working if the ingredients were mixed, right? In fact the technology of the internal combustion engine is beyond the comprehension of most four-year-olds, and gasoline, regardless of brand, is all pretty much the same when it comes to making cars function. So if all gasoline is essentially the same, what are gasoline brands actually differentiating on?

On the face of it, marketing a gasoline brand at a retail level seems a little unnecessary. If the car grinds to a halt, it is probably time to buy some gasoline. In fact, fuel prices, thirsty children, chocolate cravings, flat tires, toilets breaks and, in desperate circumstances, which gasoline station sells flowers at 9 pm on Valentine's Day, are all more urgent and persuasive in deciding who gets our cash.

Another irony is that as the price of gasoline rises, consumers become more price conscious, searching more for that elusive affordable liter of gasoline than any particular brand. So it can be argued that brand equity becomes less useful and any degree of marketing in a highly priced retail environment is less effective — gasoline is, after all, a commodity. So why bother branding it?

Well, the answer seems to be a little visionary and somewhat ironic in BP's case. You see, as technology goes, oil is thoroughly old-fashioned. While we sit in Starbucks with our laptops and chat to people around the globe instantly through a WiFi connection across a filament of air, we still get from place to place in a technology developed while Queen Victoria was alive. Critics say oil is dirty, smelly, full of nasty hydrocarbons, responsible for melting much of the Arctic Circle and, addictive. BP's brand claims to look beyond the limitations and problems with current technology. Toyota's Prius brand is relying, and thriving, on a bad environmental aftertaste left by old-fashioned motoring.

Smart brands such as BP and Toyota recognize that to have a sustainable future, they have to find innovative and clever ways of putting themselves out of the traditional gasoline and motoring business and make the idea of driving a Humvee look a bit silly and pointless — like fox hunting or joining the Freemasons. The ironic future of the consumer gasoline business lies in products other than gasoline, merely by virtue of its limited supply. The way for a gasoline company to appear progressive is to effectively say, "Please use slightly less of our product." It would be a little like Coca-Cola telling us that sugar isn't good to drink all the time, for Dunkin' Donuts to tell us that pastries and coffee aren't so healthy — why not have an apple and kelp-juice instead?

A trip to BP's website shows a vision of a world not necessarily run by oil — quite a move for a company that earns most of its bread and butter by digging up barrels of the stuff. It shows a range of ways that BP is trying to tackle carbon emissions, renewable energy and corporate social responsibility. The "Environment and Society" is second on the list, ahead of "Products and Services." I didn't find anything about Switchgrass though. The website also shows ways of using less energy and has interactive tools that let you test your "Carbon Footprint," the footprint being the drain you create on the Earth's resources by driving to work, heating the house and watching television. My own footprint measures 2.5. Apparently that's not bad, so it must be somebody else who's melting the Arctic Circle.

The logo's Helios design is as far away from a gasoline company as possible; it fits somewhere between a logo for face care products and folk art in a hippy's bedroom. The BP letters added in the corner whisper the brand's origins; the logo is ideal for a company that says "We make energy, but it's not necessarily about oil anymore." BP is a brand that has, from a marketing sense at least, managed to make a successful start down this road. It shows vision, social responsibility, and the bravery to say that while oil is far from perfect, it has bigger ideas for the future.

The initial glow of the BP brand mark has shown signs of wear as critics charge that the brand is not meeting its own challenge to adhere to environmental and safety goals. In 2005, BP held top position on an index ranking environmental, social and corporate governance issues; this year, the Wall Street Journal speculates, that ranking will slip (WSJ, 16 June 2006). A company's identity and position statement cannot be simply pasted on to inconsistent actions. BP set its own bar, but it remains to be seen if it can continue to meet it.

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