Why BP's ‘Helios’ might live to fight another day

In a digital era — as BP attempts to shift assets, ‘cap’ expenses, restore reputation and rebuild trust — is it possible the global giant has invested enough in its brand and identity to be able to recover, without having to change face?

Following the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil-rig in April, and the horrific and catastrophic events that have followed since, traditional media (television, radio and print) has been ablaze with condemnation, vilification and public unrest. We’ve seen world leaders take to the stage, television interviews with those who have lost their livelihood and environmentalists — condemning both industrial and commercial greed — emphasizing the impact on local wildlife, the fishing industry, regional tourism and beyond.

But traditional media’s fixation pales, compared to a global onslaught from online and social media, campaigning vigilantly against BP’s management of the crisis, corporate accountability and the continual destruction of our planet. On Twitter @BPGlobalPR, an unofficial and fictitious account now with over 180,000 followers, has been spoofing BP’s Public Relations messages since mid-May 2010. Reinforcing negative coverage and continuing to consistently blast, publicly endorsed, ‘retweeted’ attacks.

Over the past few weeks we have seen user generated content (UGC) gain momentum attracting a following of thousands over night. Devotees checking blog-feeds before official media channels and humorous satirical sarcasm over professionally structured commentary. Bloggers, Twitterers and iPhone ‘App’ creators alike continue to strike the ‘Public Listed Culprit’ where it hurts the most — its reputation and share-price.

Within many more weblogs and forums, amongst the expected ‘redesign the logo‘ threads, discussion has also opened up surrounding the brand identity itself, and whether the recent events, near-destruction of BP’s reputation, the dramatic drop in both financial and goodwill value will, in the long-term, instigate change and reinvention.

BP is huge — it is the forth largest company in the world — but the recent oil-spill has created obvious uncertainty about its future. There is speculation surrounding it being taken-over, the stripping of assets, and current selling of equity to guarantee survival.

Since the explosion, BP has been acknowledged as the only organisation capable of fixing the problem. Under global watch, the company is now focusing its resources on capping the leak, cleaning up the surrounding environment and providing financial compensation to the thousands of people who have been affected.

Of all corporate catastrophes that have ever faced global public and political attention and ridicule, BP must surely be at the top of the list. For the moment, the BP brand is still trying to get a grip on the situation, which from a PR and brand perspective is certainly Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and replacement CEO Bob Dudley’s most important priority.

Historically, we’ve seen many examples following corporate catastrophe and scandal, where major corporations have attempted to reposition themselves away from irrevocable stripping of public and professional confidence in their brand. With reputation in tatters, these businesses have returned to market with changed visual identity and core messaging and sometimes a new name — attempting to distance themselves from unwanted emotional baggage and to start afresh.

If BP survives, manages to clean up its messand isn’t taken over —  having suffered such bad press, Tony Hayward’s departure, record loses, mounting speculation and unprecedented online lynching  —  is the multinational’s brand identity, as we know it, destined for the scrap heap?

As one of the world’s largest companies, bearing the category’s strongest identity, dividend pay-outs are a necessity to many investors and public shareholders — on both sides of the Atlantic. However, perhaps not even BP or ‘British Petroleum’ (as several have since reverted to using) is strong enough to survive continual online ‘flak’ and mounting offline pressure.

Dependent on the outcome of the next few days, weeks and months — combined with history, years of profit, accumulated growth, thousands of staff — one can’t help wonder whether BP’s green and yellow, environmentally inspired and instantly recognisable ‘Helios’ will ever again evoke trust, assurance and loyalty.

If BP is able to position itself as accountable for all its actions, remain respectful of its size and position and prove itself capable by delivering the promises it has made, perhaps not even the largest onslaught of global, cross-platform disapproval can knock the Helios from its pedestal.

On proving itself to be ‘Beyond Petroleum’, and borne from forward-looking, innovative insight, is BP’s identity system so flexible, powerful and sustainable it will be able to support the brand, whatever the crisis?

If so, then out of one of the world’s worst industrial and environmental disasters, may come Landor’s greatest case study — creation of a ‘truly versatile’ corporate identity. One that is capable of enhancing the company’s vision and strategy for growth whilst, being clairvoyant in design, to be fully prepared in supporting a corporation, across every platform, should the unthinkable ever happen, again!