‘Olympifying’ BP is a very slippery business

For BP, sponsorship of the 2012 Olympic Games is a godsend. At 50m plus, it couldn’t come cheaper as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for a corporate reputation sullied by litigation, alleged manslaughter and a once-iconic former chief executive telling lies in court about his rent boy.

Stuart%20Smith%2C%20EditorFor BP, sponsorship of the 2012 Olympic Games is a godsend. At £50m plus, it couldn’t come cheaper as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for a corporate reputation sullied by litigation, alleged manslaughter and a once-iconic former chief executive telling lies in court about his rent boy.

Of course, you won’t hear the people at BP referring to it like that. The way Luc Bardin, head of sales and marketing for BP Group, tells it, the signing of the tier-one partnership is the first step in a plan to “Olympify” BP’s communications.

In many ways, it’s a deal which makes eminently good sense for both sides. The global scale of BP’s operations befittingly matches the breadth of the Olympic ideal; at the same time, it is a reassuringly “British” touchpoint, as the games revisit these islands for the first time since 1948. The usefulness of BP’s financial muscle to Locog almost goes without saying; but it should not be forgotten that building an infrastructure of petrol stations and supplying a huge amount of fuel will be very good business for BP too.

Arguably, however, the biggest benefits for BP are the more intangible ones. A platform, of course, to ramp up its traditional cultural and educational credentials through the Cultural Olympiad, which will begin to roll the minute the Beijing Games finish. And, most importantly, an opportunity to address in a new and more creative way one of BP’s most bruising corporate issues: its badly damaged reputation as a champion of sustainability.

As is well known, former BP chief Lord Browne broke new ground as a visionary global business leader when he chose to engage with environmentalists, accepting many of their criticisms, and reinvented British Petroleum as Beyond Petroleum. That visionary reputation now lies in tatters, not so much because of anything that happened to Lord Browne, but because of BP’s well-attested hypocrisy over investment in alternative energy supplies.

At the moment, BP is unwilling to forge any explicit link between “Olympification” and the future of Beyond Petroleum. But it is not an issue that new chief executive Tony Hayward will be able to duck for much longer.

There are plenty who would advise Hayward to draw a line under the whole Beyond Petroleum episode, its pretensions having been wholly exploded. After all, oil companies are by the very nature of their operations, well, oily. But in the era of “We’re in this Together” and “Plan A – because there is no plan B”, some sort of principled stand on environmental issues is de rigueur corporate social responsibility. Moreover, despite the media and environmentalist brouhaha over BP’s green reputation, the company continues to score well in research among the general public on the subject (our own included).

It would, therefore, be a great surprise, and probably a big mistake, if Hayward were to break entirely with Beyond Petroleum in the coming months. Expect, however, a radical redefinition. Or rather, an “Olympification”.

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