The Olympification of BP

f1120This week, billions of sports fans around the world will sit down to watch the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The city itself expects an influx of 1.5 million visitors for the event. One of them will be Luc Bardin, head of sales and marketing for BP Group, tier-one partner of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Bardin is on a mission to absorb and learn as much as he can from the experience, and to apply that learning to BP’s strategy for London 2012. Speaking exclusively to Marketing Week, he outlines the scale of the oil company’s commitment to London 2012, the motivation behind it and its multiple dimensions. The plan is to “Olympify” much of BP’s communications.

Such a plan could lead to it championing its existing “Beyond Petroleum” marketing
strategy, or even – as some sources suggest – radically overhauling or axing it completely.

“The Olympic movement stands for things we deeply believe in – shared convictions, shared values and shared objectives,” says Bardin, an Olympics enthusiast. Always looking for the best, operating at the frontier, performance and endeavour are just some of the values to which Bardin refers.

The partnership between BP and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games is exactly that: both parties have objectives that they say the relationship must deliver.

For Locog, which needs to raise £2bn to run 2012, the sheer financial contribution BP is making – at least £50m – cannot be overstated. Locog commercial director Chris Townsend says: “BP brings a significant amount of finance and we must never forget the importance of funding the organisation to run 2012.”

But 2012 partners are not chosen for financial muscle alone. In a vast matrix of requirements Locog has to deliver, BP was identified as a contributor in several other areas during the competitive bid. Townsend says BP’s role as a sustainability partner will be “significant” and the company will also be involved in the Cultural Olympiad, in arts and culture programmes, which will begin to unfold after Beijing ends.

Bardin explains the myriad areas that BP needs to “be thoughtful” about, in order to maximise the potential of the partnership. “Just securing ‘getting the Olympics moving’, as required by Locog, means the provision of infrastructure, petrol stations and fuel supplies, and is a major aspect,” he says. This leads to the second area, which, in line with BP’s role as sustainability partner, is doing this in the most efficient way.

Bardin describes how the company will leverage the partnership. “ From a business perspective, there is value. We can also touch many people from and with our businesses,” he says.

Marketing activity directed at the 6 million customers that pass through BP forecourts each week will largely be done in house. No large pitches will be held for the numerous agencies that contacted the company after the deal was announced last month, Bardin says. Instead, BP will draw on its experience of top-level sport, such as BP oil brand Castrol’s recent sponsorship of UEFA Euro 2008, and its upcoming backing of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Sponsorship Consulting managing director Pippa Collett says: “Not only will BP sell considerable amounts of fuel by supplying the 2012 Games themselves, the partnership will help people develop an affinity with the brand and leave motorists more apt to notice a BP sign. It’s about quite literally driving traffic onto the forecourt.” Collett adds there will also be business-to-business benefits, where BP can offer all kinds of Olympic-related incentives to drive sales.

As a broader concept, Collett sees BP’s support of 2012 as evidence of “being seen to do the right thing”. She says: “There are a lot of people who still think of BP as being British, so it’s good corporate citizenship”.

The core of Locog’s submission for the 2012 Games was that it is to be “a Games for everybody”, which is yet another synergy that Bardin sees between the two. “We already do a lot in the three arenas of culture, community and education, and it is about ‘Olympifying’ what we are doing,” he says. Bardin describes BP’s education programmes as “enduring and on some scale”, and is looking at how this aspect can be leveraged.

BP has a strong history of involvement in the arts. Former chief executive Lord Browne was an opera buff and was renowned for his art collection. But under the stewardship of Tony Hayward, who took over in May 2007, BP seems to be heading in a different direction. While not exactly eschewing the arts, Bardin wants BP to place far greater emphasis on education programmes. These days one is more likely to find the pristine white corridors of BP’s St James Square headquarters bristling with signs related to safety and exhortations to eco-friendly working practices than examples of the pre-Columbian art so admired by Browne.

Lord Browne, hailed as a visionary business leader before his humiliating departure last year after lying to a court over his private life, also spearheaded the company’s Beyond Petroleum positioning. In the decade that has followed Browne’s revolutionary acceptance of claims by environmentalists, the lack of any truly significant investment in alternative energy supplies has left the oil company open to criticism. And, since BP careerist Tony Hayward took over, there has been mounting speculation that the Beyond Petroleum line might even be scrapped.

Bardin refuses to be drawn, save to say that what BP means by Beyond Petroleum will be “reclarified”. Chris Wood, chairman of branding agency Corporate Edge, believes Beyond Petroleum is still “broadly beneficial” to BP. “You chop something with that level of awareness at your peril,” he warns.

Despite the problems BP has, such as critical safety reports, attacks from environmentalists, the messy TNK-BP Russian joint venture and screaming tabloid headlines about the company’s rapacious profits, to name but a few, Wood claims that to drop Beyond Petroleum would be a mistake.

“That message is more relevant now than it has ever been,” he says. “It is better to hold that ground and have the occasional pop taken at you, than hold the ground Shell and Esso have.”

Wood believes that the general consumer is nowhere near as cognisant of the problems BP has faced as the hyper-aware media and the marketing industry. “There is still the general idea that BP means well and that’s the level at which ordinary people will be aware of the company. The Olympics is an extension of that – doing the right British thing.”
Bardin says there was too much “convergence” between the values of BP and those of the London 2012 Olympics for the company not to consider the partnership. But Bardin has a more expansive conviction: “There is something about the importance of this country and of London to BP – ;and, maybe, the importance of BP to this country.”

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