Saturday, July 3, 2010

Politics Over Principle Damages America-the Brand

Getting back to the Toyota – BP – America branding discussion, perhaps it is America, the brand, that suffers most when corporate America puts profits over responsibility. This is often compounded by our elected officials who engage in obstructionist partisan politics at just the moment when they need to pull together for the common good. Take Texas Congressman Joe Barton, the jackass who came out and said BP was owed an apology for being subjected to a “shakedown” by our government. He was taken to the wood shed by his own party for that one. He represents Houston, the big oil town. No surprise there. And wouldn't you love to follow the money trail between him and big oil?

I suppose in a perfect world, there would be a long-term boycott of Toyota vehicles and BP oil, and Congressman Barton would be tarred and feathered. But that’s the problem. Like certain banks we all learned about in the big financial meltdown, they are too big to fail.

I’ve heard Congressman Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, say the GOP stands for Greed Over Principle. Well, putting politics aside and sticking to branding, the same could be said for corporate America. It is more than disturbing to consider how the biggest corporations – from big oil to big box retailers, put their profits first, and the bigger picture – the environment, the safety of their employees, etc. – second. When taken to task, they sing the same old tune: “We’re the good guys because we create jobs. If you fine us or impose too many restrictions on us, you’ll take jobs away from hard working American families.” I say shame on them all for diminishing America, the brand.

How is America's Brand Doing?

On this, the eve of America's 234th birthday, I'm compelled to think about how America, the brand, is doing. To some, I suppose we're still the envy of the world. To others, especially when you consider the emerging super-economies like China and India, we must seem like a stumbling former champion.

When is a brand irreparably damaged?

Having just heard about new recalls by Toyota, the world’s biggest automotive brand, I can’t help thinking the marketing folks at Toyota – the company that sold thousands of vehicles in the U.S. with faulty accelerators – must be happy these days. To quote an old campaign tagline of theirs, “Oh What A Feeling!”

In the wake of a humiliating, brand-ruining nightmare, Toyota is buying huge amounts of TV time to shift perception and restore consumer confidence. The company says it’s spending a million dollars an hour on safety engineering. Very strategically developed graphics – like the word “SAFE” in big letters adjacent to the Toyota logo attempt to make the corrective association.

Getting back to the marketing types at Toyota, why should they be happy? Because no matter how badly Toyota has screwed up, it’s nothing compared to Uber screw-up BP. When a new villain comes along, the public forgets about the old one. Because the consumer tends to have a short memory, the old villain is no longer the villain; he’s yesterday’s news.

The new villain, BP, essentially did the same thing Toyota did with its faulty accelerator problem. In the early stages, they minimized the problem, avoided cooperating with federal investigators and hoped it would fix itself somehow.

BP is going to wind up spending about $30 billion to pay for its screw-up. But the question remains. Is the BP brand so irreparably damaged that British Petroleum will soon spin off its U.S. operations into a newly-named division?