The Most Controversial Greenwashing Campaign in History

Marketing lessons from Beyond Petroleum’s deceptive rebrand

Jonah Malin
Mar 14 · 5 min read

Massive rebrands spread through the marketing community like wildfire. We analyze them. Praise some. Reject others. Send out a few Tweets or publish an article. Then we forget.

British Petroleum is one of a select few capturing an ongoing share of our attention. It’s historically bad.

There’s nothing green about drilling oil. It destroys habitats. It exposes local communities to pollution. And British Petroleum thought a logo could brush everything under the rug. They thought deep pockets would make people forget.

But what do you see when the vibrant green-white-and-yellow sunburst logo appears? For me, one thing alone comes to mind: disaster.

Nothing will ever change that association.

This is more than a story about failed logo design. It’s the story of how the third-largest oil company in the world tried to deceive consumers through marketing with a very expensive distraction.

The crazy thing is, they almost got away with it too.

Going Green or Greenwashing?

In 2000, BP was under immense pressure from the press with ongoing stories of unsatisfactory safety standards. Multinational Monitor magazine named BP one of the “10 Worst Companies” based on BP’s poor environmental record.

No matter how you frame oil, it will always be oil. We know this. BP obviously knows this. So they made a gutsy call and went along with society’s push to be eco-friendly. BP launched a massive $200 million rebranding project to radically change the company’s perception.

Famous brand consultancy firm Landor (Apple, BMW, Nike) was brought on board for their new visual identity.

To its credit, the updated logo named “Helios” after the Greek sun-god played the part. It feels greener and modern compared to the old shield logo.

As the cherry on top, BP adopted the tagline “Beyond Petroleum.”

“We need to reinvent the energy business,” declared BP’s chief executive in a speech at Stanford University in March 2002. “We need to go beyond petroleum.”

Ogilvy & Mather created a massive global awareness campaign to promote BP’s cleaner image through TV and radio spots, direct mail, and the rollout of interactive gas stations.

The goal was obvious: position BP as an environmentally sensitive company looking for sustainable, green energy sources.

Effective Propaganda

When the new identity went public, people were skeptical.

Consumers aren’t idiots — even though brands seem to repeatedly think we are. An oil behemoth rebranding as nature’s protector wasn’t logical.

However, BP released a series of branding, advertising, and PR campaigns to shift public perception (again). BP managed to turn the tables with the “carbon footprint calculator” so one could assess how their normal daily life is largely responsible for global warming.

British Petroleum took the ad campaign to the streets filming regular people for a London TV ad. The marketers asked questions like “Do you worry about global climate change?” so people would naturally reply with “I” or “We” to a question about global warming. This allowed BP to remove itself as a contributor to the problem of climate change.

Now pollution was your fault, not theirs.

“Have they convinced people through advertising and PR that they are a better company? I think so.”

— John Stauber, Center for Media and Democracy

Even critics of the campaign were acknowledging its efficacy.

What Happened Next

After BP’s Texas City refinery blew up in 2005, killing 15 workers, the company promised to address the safety shortfalls.

The next year, when a badly maintained oil pipeline ruptured and spilled 200,000 gallons of crude oil over Alaska’s North Slope, the oil giant once again promised to clean up its act.

In 2007, when Tony Hayward took over as chief executive, BP settled a series of criminal charges and agreed to pay $370 million in fines. “Our operations failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law,” the company said then, pledging to improve its “risk management.”

On April 20th, 2010, BP was responsible for the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The Deepwater Horizon incident thrust BP back into the media spotlight.

People died. Local economies collapsed. Ecosystems were permanently damaged.

On May 27 the New York Times reported that only days before the explosion BP knowingly chose to use a risky type of casing on the well. And on June 10 a federal panel announced new estimates indicating that the flow of oil from the damaged well was much higher than BP had been claiming.

Under financial stress, BP was forced to sell off its publicly endorsed alternative energy ventures to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon accident, quietly letting the 2001 rebrand fade away.

Beyond Petroleum was beyond repair.

Rebranding Starts and Ends on The Inside

In hindsight, it’s easy to see through BP’s deception from the beginning. Instead of embodying the new identity and investing more in alternative energy, BP cut corners with a facelift.

They walked the talk.

One of the creators of BP’s ad campaigns later acknowledged it was all a marketing scheme, not a sincere effort to promote BP’s low-carbon or renewable energy transformation.

“It’s become mere marketing — perhaps it always was — instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm.”

Nearly 20 years after BP rebranded itself from “British Petroleum” to “beyond petroleum,” pledging to be a protector of the planet, the company announced another green initiative.

Why should we believe them?

Final Thoughts

Here’s what large brands like BP still don’t understand. Graphics can’t change someone's mind. A logo does not fix trust. We see through your clever copy — whether it takes ten minutes or ten years.

They are accessories with limitations.

When our agency rebrands organizations, it never starts in the creative phase. We care about your people, values, and mission first. We want to know how you speak and what your constituents think.

We know a brand is everything you stand for.

The hard-earned truth is, a rebranding starts and ends on the inside. Marketing is just the period at the end of the sentence.

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Jonah Malin

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Helping brands + humans build thought equity. For a pretty, pretty, pretttaaay good newsletter→

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