As BP's stricken rig barfed over 2000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico for the best part of a month, some wag suggested pouring gallons of vinegar into the ocean to create the world's largest salad dressing. But that's probably the extent of the levity to be drawn from the situation - because alongside the black stuff, the UK oil giant has been pumping its reputation away at a similar rate. And as any marketing professional will tell you, brand is reputation, reputation is brand.
The branding process has always had a built in Achilles' heel. It certainly takes a great deal of hard work and an extraordinary sum of money to create, assemble, promote and maintain a global brand, and when handled correctly the results and profits are astonishing. But here's the sting the entire entity can be severely if not mortally wounded in a matter of hours.
It would be logical to assume the biggest brands are immune to this kind of corporate banana skin, but in spite of (or maybe because of) their immense size, they tend to be the most vulnerable.
Take Google. Yes, good old, reliable old, new media champion Google. The world warmed to Google thanks to its dedication to personal freedom, its commitment to open information and its anti-corporate image. But the temptation of China's enormous market and huge population proved too much. Before you could bring up a humorous cat clip, they had agreed to censor their results in exchange for their share of the spoils. Hey presto - brand values evaporating quicker than sake steam.
Coke, arguably the world's biggest brand, has managed to generate similar gaffes not once but several times. Firstly, by trying to suggest their much gulped formula wasn't all that brilliant and launching New Coke in 1985. A miserable failure, the original recipe was eventually restored and the process of rebuilding the damaged brand began. However, not content with that exercise in messing on their own doorstep, in 2004 Coke launched Dasani a bottled water purified using 'NASA technology'. Before long it emerged that Dasani was drawn from the mains supply and merely filtered using the same process as a home device.
Surely this rather sorry offering couldn't suffer any further? Indeed it could, as it was then revealed the water contained a carcinogen called Bromate. PR disaster and a severely tarnished brand followed. Presumably by then, Coke's executives were wishing they'd stuck with their caffeinated, sugar loaded flagship drink and not bothered with whole 'pure' thing.
The British can be sparing with their affections, but we loved the Post Office and Royal Mail. It made us feel secure not only would our letters and parcels be handled with care and delivered on time, but this was a service at the heart of our communities providing a venue for our local gossip and a hub for our public services. No-one in their right mind would ever, EVER, tinker with a brand attracting that level of goodwill, support and loyalty would they? Of course they would. In 2001, the organisation founded in 1681 by Charles The First dropped one of the most highly regarded names in the nation and became Consignia. To almost nobody's surprise, the new handle was widely disliked, poorly understood (not least of all by the board which introduced it) and rapidly came to represent everything the public disliked about the corporate world. In less than a year, Chairman Allan Leighton confirmed the new name was to be axed and the Post Office was to return. The cost of this unfathomable folly is lost in time, but it certainly ran into the millions.
Now, BP haven't actually decided to damage their brand by letting oleaginous mayhem seep into one of the most beautiful regions on the planet. On the face of it, this appears to be accidental. But what they did decide to do, around eight years ago, was rebrand their business. 'British Petroleum' became 'Beyond Petroleum'. The famous BP shield logo became a green, radiant sun. Here was a company shouting with all their might 'We're no longer evil, petro-chemical merchants of black smoky doom. We're the shiny new leaders of the eco-revolution, investing in this natural, lovely solar stuff.' And for a while, we almost bought it. Obviously we noted they still sold petrol at the pumps, but we didn't think too much about it because we needed it to get to work and go on holiday. And, hey, BP were probably going to phase it out and give everyone an electric car pretty soon, right?
But it's pretty hard to paint yourself as the green, clean guardians of the planet when one of your pipes it turning the ocean inky and providing an early grave for swathes of marine life. That key brand value is now ... ahem ... dead in the water.
So what can we (and our clients) glean from all this. Is every successful brand doomed to eventual disaster? Not all. But a corporate brand must always be seen as a cut glass goblet full of vintage claret. Carry it carefully, revere and respect it and you have something admirable, impressive and valuable. But water it down, spill it or drop it and the consequences will be sudden and the regret long lasting.
Magnus Shaw - freelance copywriter, consultant and blogger