WPP’s leaked BP marketing deck shows that you can’t fix looking like a ‘bad guy’ if you act like one

Earlier this year, WPP's 'Team Energy' created a deck for BP to guide creative workshops. It asked questions like: ‘How do we signal we ‘get it’ in a meaningful way so people can see BP is leading the change?’ and ‘What is meaningful empathy in a world where we’re seen as one of the bad guys?’ Belinda Noble argues BP can't answer those questions truthfully and adequately when they're currently in opposition with its business model and profitability goals.

Recently, WPP’s marketing deck for client BP was leaked to climate media outfit, Drilled News. It’s very revealing, suggesting that the company may be manipulating community sentiment regarding climate change in order to sell more gas.

The deck – created by WPP’s ‘Team Energy’, which was formed in 2017 to manage BP’s account – was used as an introduction to a week of workshops attended by BP’s agencies and executives. The 52-page presentation contains nine pages on the challenge of reinventing BP to win over the next generation of customers, workers and opinion leaders.

You could easily feel a little bit sorry for BP. First, its Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused one of the world’s largest environmental disasters. Then, its attempts to rebuild as a green energy company with its ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ and ‘Keep Advancing’ campaigns backfired badly, and even resulted in legal action for misleading consumers.

Earlier this year, the oil giant’s new CEO, Bernard Looney, tried to turn things around with a big restructure and rebrand that came with an enticing promise of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It vowed to stop corporate reputational advertising and instead put resources towards advocating for pollution reductions around the world.

For the vision alone, BP should be lauded. It’s a tough balancing act between making profits and cutting emissions, and we should all pray Looney succeeds.

Back to the Team Energy presentation deck.

Focussing on the school climate strikes, it says BP must become relatable, passionate and committed (just like Greta Thunberg) in order to win trust and build reputation with Gen Y and Z.

The main challenge of the week was framed as: “How do we signal we ‘get it’ in a meaningful way so people can see BP is leading the change?”

It will do this, the deck indicates, through grassroots empathy or advocacy marketing.

People who are environmentally conscious, and those that influence them, are the key target audiences. Empathy marketing would activate the emotions those people feel about climate, and then insert BP as an ally and problem solver via networks and influencers. It’s not selling, it’s helping.

To create more authenticity and trust, it would also use the language and symbols of green causes.

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So, its brand essence has moved from ‘advancing the energy transition’ to ‘reinventing energy for people and planet’. And the positioning removes the word ‘hydrocarbons’ and inserts the words ‘climate emergency’.

But if the world’s fifth largest oil company is promoting itself like a grassroots environmental advocate, where does this leave actual environmental advocates?

When big oil starts talking and looking the same as big NGOs, how do consumers know who is causing pollution and who is fighting it? And is that confusion the aim of empathy marketing or just a happy by-product?

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The deck also reveals some gaps in logic and a bit of wishful thinking.

It states the world has just 10 years to reach the UN Development goals, but includes no targets for itself to achieve any goals in that time.

It also makes it clear that it’s trying to get people to equate gas with clean energy – and boasts that nearly 60% of people now make this link. (To learn why gas is not a clean or renewable energy, please read this from the Climate Council.)

And there’s no recognition that its goal of reducing emissions is in direct contrast with its current business model. In fact, BP is planning to deliver 11 new oil and gas projects before the end of next year [since the time of writing, BP has announced a review of its oil and gas development plans]. Its $US500m investment in low carbon activities is dwarfed by its annual capex of $US12bn in not-so-clean activities. It is reportedly the sixth largest polluting company on the planet, with about the same amount of emissions as Australia.

How do you offset all that while still expanding?

Perhaps the most telling thing of all, however, was this question to delegates: “What is meaningful empathy in a world where we’re seen as one of the bad guys?”

It shows that BP hasn’t really caught up with the fact that, in terms of greenhouse pollution, it is one of the bad guys. And it begs the question: Can you leverage empathy and authenticity for commercial gain without making those very concepts meaningless?

BP is looking for meaning without taking the most meaningful action of all – an immediate, verifiable plan to phase out fossil fuel production to meet that net zero goal.

Belinda Noble is the co-founder of Communicators Declare and founder of BeNoble Communications


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