BP in the Post-Hayward Era: Reviving the Brand

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Now that the flow of oil into the Gulf has stopped (for the most part), BP is beginning to work on repairing its public image crisis.

The Associated Press reports that BP’s board of directors will vote today on whether to push out Tony Hayward, the CEO of the oil company who has come under fire for his handling of the oil spill. Rumors are that this vote is just a formality as the company has already decided to replace Hayward with Robert Dudley, the man who took over Hayward’s role in overseeing the oil spill response.

There is no doubt that Hayward is perceived as being nearly as toxic to the company as the oil is to the Gulf. In the more than three months since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, Hayward has come under fire for various blunders, perhaps most famously for professing, “I would like my life back.” But his image is also inextricably tied to the lengthy process of cleaning up the spill and the many failed efforts BP made to do so.

As Slate described last month, “Hayward has emerged as the public face of BP. When he shows up at the Gulf, or on television, he catches all the flak—for his colleagues, for those who report to him, and for those to whom he reports. As a human punching bag, he absorbs all the blows thrown by politicians, the media, and locals that might otherwise land on the corporate board or on investors. He literally owns the spill—and its consequences.”

Yet, at the time, Slate actually mentioned all of that as a motivation for BP to keep Hayward in the role of CEO. In essence, the best course of action is to let the current CEO deflect and absorb all the bad press from the company until the spill is done and out of the news. Then, cut him loose and pray the company can start over with a new CEO.

If you buy that logic, the question now is whether getting rid of Hayward this week would be too soon. According to Business Week, BP will begin to inject mud and cement into the damaged oil well in what is seen as the final stages of plugging the hole. But as with all things this company does, we can only wonder what happens if this effort fails. If the well begins spewing oil again, won’t this tarnish Dudley?

Beyond that, it seems naïve to imagine that the public would just forget and fall back in love with BP again just because its board got rid of Hayward. First off, there are rumors that Hayward will get as much as $23 million in severance from the company, a nice going away gift that will likely just make BP look even worse. More importantly, the Gulf will be a wreck for years, and the citizens and small business owners who have lost their livelihoods won’t likely warm up to BP anytime soon. Yes, BP has already promised to devote billions of dollars to help repair the lives of those in the Gulf, but money may not be enough. The company may also need to change its narrative.

BP should take heart in a study released this month in the Journal of Consumer Research, which found that consumers tend to identify with brands that they believe are underdogs. According to ScienceDaily.com, “The authors examined the ways many contemporary brand narratives highlight companies' humble beginnings and struggles against powerful adversaries… The authors found that consumers identify with underdog stories because most people have felt disadvantaged at one time or another.”

In this particular study, consumers were mostly focusing on the way big companies develop their creation stories, but it doesn’t seem like too big of a stretch to imagine consumers responding just as well to companies working on their re-creation stories. Businesses like BP, not to mention Toyota, Goldman Sachs and others, might consider developing a new set of talking points to highlight the adversity they face now in trying to make things right, put out a quality product and stay in business. Rather than just shed their tarnished image by throwing out employees at the top, they might be able to embrace it in this way and move on. After all, if there’s one thing that talk shows and reality TV have taught us, it’s that Americans love the idea of a second chance.

Update: BP seems to be putting off the decision. The Associated Press is reporting that the company will keep Hayward as a CEO until October when he will take a job with one of BP's partners. However, BP has yet to make an official statement one way or the other. We will continue to update this post as more information becomes available.

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