THE “GREEN” PATH TO COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF BP AND EXXONMOBIL’S BUSINESS STRATEGIES
This paper will examine the sudden reversal of British Petroleum’s stance regarding the
environment and climate change. Within several years, BP went from an opponent of
environmental regulations to one of the leading oil companies promoting exactly such change in
its own business lines. With the change came an aggressive marketing campaign using “green”
strategies, and the company sought to move its image away from oil. The following will provide
a background into the energy industry and the environmental debate, as well as the business
strategies of BP and ExxonMobil, to argue that BP’s decision reflected an attempt to garner first-
mover advantages through a new “clean” reputation. In short, the campaign was and is a public
relations game to gain competitive advantage in the industry.
The debate regarding climate change began in the late 1980’s as scientific evidence
presented models relating manmade emissions to atmospheric change and global warming. The
international polemic had begun and much of the world’s attention focused in the mid-1990’s on
the proposed Kyoto Protocol, which would lower emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) below
the 1990 levels. Governments and the business community alike formed institutions and
lobbying organizations to study the effects of such emissions reductions. The energy industry
has been greatly impacted by environmental regulations since the 1970’s and formed the Global
Climate Coalition (also known as the Climate Change Convention) to oppose any government
action against global warming.
The Global Climate Coalition represented oil and energy industry big wigs such as
ExxonMobil, Shell, British Petroleum (BP), and Chevron. In 1996, however, the organization
lost much of its legitimacy as BP left the coalition, followed by Shell. The industry’s once
unified voice became fragmented as BP changed course and initiated a “green” business strategy.
Since that time, BP has launched a rebranding campaign emphasizing support for emissions
reductions and the Kyoto Protocol. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has been vilified for its continued
criticism of such regulations and apparent reluctance to invest in “clean” sources of energy.
As with any sharp reversal of policy, the question arises as to why BP chose to pursue
such a green strategy. I argue that BP employed an aggressive green marketing campaign to
improve its image and gain market share in an increasingly competitive industry. Furthermore, I
propose that the timing of the move may be explained by three things: 1) the long-term view
embraced by BP’s corporate culture; 2) the heightened British and European emphasis on
meeting the Kyoto GHG emissions reductions; and 3) the British and European public’s desire
for environmentally-friendly products.
In the late 1990’s BP found itself struggling in a quickly consolidating industry. Ranked
twelfth in oil production and fourth in both refining capacity and marketing, it had been unable
to really distinguish itself as a leading oil company (Podolny and Roberts: 1998). Attempting to
improve its competitive position, BP merged with Amoco Corp. in 1998 and acquired Atlantic
Richfield (ARCO), another major American oil company, in 2000. BP’s operations are now in
all areas of the oil industry: exploration and production, gas and power, refining and marketing,
and chemicals. The majority of its operations are located in the U.S. (42%), followed by the
U.K. (23%), the rest of Europe (18%), and other countries (17%) (Standard and Poor’s: 2002).
Meanwhile, Exxon, formerly Standard Oil, was in a better market position throughout the
90’s. Ranked eighth in production, fourth in natural gas, and second in both refining capacity
and marketing, it found itself consistently behind Shell, then the industry’s largest private
company (Podolny and Roberts). Exxon enhanced its industry position in 1999 through its
acquisition of Mobil, another leading American oil company. Now known as ExxonMobil, the
company’s principal business is energy, involving the exploration, production, transportation and
sale of crude oil and natural gas, and the manufacture, transportation and sale of petroleum
products. The company is heavily involved in the manufacture and marketing of petrochemicals
including olefins, aromatics, polyethylene and polypropylene plastics and a variety of specialty
products. Other business lines are in the exploration, mining and sale of minerals such as coal
and copper, and the company also has interests in electric power generation facilities (Standard
and Poor’s: 2002).
This industry context, combined with the Kyoto debates, led to BP’s green strategy and a
reorientation of the industry’s internal debate. As mentioned earlier, energy companies formed a
united front in the 1980’s and early 1990’s against the sort of mandated emissions reductions
contained in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Emphasizing the uncertainty of the science, lack of
accurate measurement techniques and the high costs involved, businesses advocated a market-
based, free-trade and voluntary approach to solving environmental problems (“Earth Summit:
World Business …”: 2002). While not denying the existence and problem posed by climate
change, companies urged the development of long-term solutions that would minimize the risk of
climate change from energy use without unacceptable social and economic consequences
Why Go Green? The BP Strategy
The discussion regarding the destructive nature of GHG emissions continued to play a
prominent role in the public debate and is cited by BP executives as the reason for their
company’s change in tune. A policy adviser to BP CEO, John Browne, stated that, “We felt, and
still feel, that the scientific evidence on global climate change is inconclusive. But we felt that
the coalition’s public statements were inappropriately dismissive” that climate change due to
human activity could be a serious social problem (Reinhardt: 2000). So why would BP choose
to voluntarily impose upon itself the high costs involved in restructuring its business, especially
given the fact that it too believed that scientific evidence of a causal link was lacking?
As with other cases in which a company reversed course from an entrenched industry
position – i.e. DuPont and its production of CFC’s or the Starkist switch to dolphin-safe tuna –
BP presented its decision in terms of the public benefit. It reoriented its business because it
wanted to “do the right thing,” not because it hoped to increase its profits or one-up its
competitors. BP’s decision to go “green” however was a calculated public relations move
designed to garner the company first-mover advantages.
To a certain extent, it has succeeded. Not too long after refusing to renew its membership
in the energy industry’s Global Climate Coalition, BP embarked on a marketing campaign to
rebrand itself. The company wanted to “ditch its image as an old-fashioned oil group and
rebrand itself as an environmentally-aware energy and general services company” (“BP” in
Marketing: 2002). As part of a £100 million rebranding program, BP adopted the “Beyond
Petroleum” mantra and redesigned its logo from the former shield to the new “sunburst.” Both
of these are meant to reflect an interest in cleaner, more environmentally-friendly fuels such as
natural gas and solar power. The current ad campaign “BP on the Street” continues to promote
the green-company image. Citizens in New York, Illinois, California and Washington, DC are
featured discussing their views of oil companies, alternative fuels and other energy-related
topics. Each ad concludes with BP commenting on actions it is taking to address these concerns
The campaign has grabbed the public’s attention and brought praise from environmental
groups. BP’s stated goal is “to do no damage to the environment” (www.bp.com). Four years
ago the company set a target to reduce GHG emissions from its operations by ten percent. It
accomplished this goal last year at a cost of $150 million, which it has since regained through the
$400 million in savings from new production efficiencies (Hanley: 2002). It accomplished this
partly by initiating an internal market of emissions credits, allowing dirtier business lines to buy
“credits” from cleaner ones (Skelton: 2002). Having cleaned up much of its production, the
company is beginning to go beyond the goal of “no damage” to positively benefit the
environment. This is being done through local plans to conserve and improve the quality of
natural habitats and precious resources (www.bp.com).
In addition, BP has diversified its investments to become a leader in solar power, and
now accounts for almost a fifth of the world solar market. Continuing the improvement of its
own energy efficiency, it has plans to build the “world’s most environmentally friendly service
station.” BP will install solar panels and wind turbines to generate up to half of the station’s
power (Darbonne). The company appears to be taking a proactive leadership position in
anticipating the inevitable shift to cleaner, less carbon-intensive fuels. It plans to increase
investment in lower-carbon energy markets like solar and hydrogen to $300 million over the next
three years, and is also shifting its focus from oil to natural gas (Thomas: 2001).
Going Green: Contributing Factors
ExxonMobil would argue that BP’s move to a green strategy to enhance its market
position is riskier than it may appear. John Browne, BP’s CEO is likely to agree. It was his
philosophy, however, along with the tide of opinion sweeping through Britain and Europe, that
contributed to the social and economic environment BP concluded would support and reward its
gamble. Three factors encouraged BP’s decision to gamble on a green strategy.
First, BP’s corporate culture and executive leadership were more apt to accept risk and
adopt a long-term perspective to enhance their market position than their competitors. Those
familiar with BP’s history assert that the company has always been image-conscious. The
concern with public perception began in its earliest days with its famous shield logo in 1924 and
the enclosure of the letters ‘BP’ in the shield in 1931. The image evolved over the years with the
adoption of the green and yellow colors in the 1940’s, an explosion of advertising in the 1950’s,
the use of animation as well as macho imagery throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and taglines like
“BP. Britain at its best” and “BP. On the move” (“BP”). Image has consistently been one of the
company’s tools for expansion. The decision to adopt ambitious green strategies like the
emissions reduction target also stemmed from previous management experiences. Executives
were influenced by several positive experiences with “stretch” targets in the environmental arena
as well as outside it. In the early 1990’s for example, the chemical company halved its emissions
of air pollutants (Reinhardt). Such previous successes undoubtedly encouraged accepting the
risks of a green strategy.
Second, the emphasis within the British government and those of other EU nations on
reducing GHG emissions to meet Kyoto targets provided further incentives to adopt green
strategies. As a British company and one whose European sales typically approach fifty percent
of its total (42% in 2001), BP saw an opportunity to meet the rising demand for cleaner energy.
Britain for instance faces a fall in supply from its traditional sources of energy and must also
seek to reduce its GHG emissions. Oil and gas from the North Sea had been a secure supply of
energy for the last quarter century, however, the reserve is now ageing and the UK must look
elsewhere for secure supplies (Lloyd’s List: February 15, 2002). Furthermore, due to
decommissioning, Britain will lose much of its nuclear supply of energy (currently 25% of the
total) (Webb: 2001). Given the decline in energy from these sources, the British government has
called for an expansion of renewable sources. The review by the Performance and Innovation
Unit, Prime Minister Blair’s think-tank, called for a tenfold increase by 2020 of the use of
renewables, which is equivalent to 20% of the country’s energy mix (Lloyd’s List). For the
moment, gas is the dominant fuel, but the pendulum appears to be swinging towards greener
Third, British and European citizens are typically more attune and supportive of
environmentally friendly companies than Americans – one may point to the European sensitivity,
and American indifference, to hormone-injected beef or genetically modified foods. As a major
European energy supplier, BP used the heightened interest surrounding the Kyoto debates, to
capture the attention and business of the European public. As the ultimate consumer of BP
products, favorable public opinion is extremely important.
All Is Not As It Seems
While BP is the environmentalist’s friend, ExxonMobil has been a target of the
environmental lobby’s wrath. It should be noted that BP’s green strategy has not gone
uncriticised, and it is not drastically different from the rest of the industry. BP is still a company
that produces mainly oil and gas, and contrary to its critics, ExxonMobil has taken steps to
promote environmental protection.
Many in the oil industry have questioned the merits of BP’s greenery. “People are rather
cynical about it [BP’s environmental record]” and support the argument that the company’s
efforts have more to do with public relations than welfare (Buchan and Buck: 2002). Others
have accused BP of failing to honor its commitment to seek alternatives to fossil fuels
(Mortishead: 2001). Even Greenpeace has accused the company of using its climate change
policy as a “cover” to continue its traditional oil production activities. What is perhaps a better
indicator is the distinction seldom noted when discussing BP’s reduction of its GHG emissions.
Its aggressive target to reduce emissions by 10% from 1990 levels only affected the company’s
own emissions and did not extend to reducing the emissions of the consumers of its products.
While emissions from BP’s refineries were reduced, nothing was done to reduce the emissions
released when a customer drove her car (Reinhardt).
ExxonMobil on the other hand, has not been credited for its efforts to protect the
environment and reduce GHG emissions. The company was one of several to begin reducing
emissions from its refineries in the 1970’s. Since 1973, the company has improved its energy
efficiency by more than 37% through the more efficient production of electricity. In 2001 it
spent $1,782 million ($505 million of which was capital expenditure) on environmental projects;
an amount representing 11.6% of its net income (SEC Report: 2001). In the same period, BP
spent $850 million on environment-related projects, or 10.5% of its net income (SEC Report:
2001 and Darbonne: 2001). Lloyd’s Register of Quality Assurance has attested that
ExxonMobil’s Operations Integrity Management System meets the intent and requirements of
the ISO 14001 environmental standards, and has also found “ExxonMobil to be among the
industry leaders in the extent to which environmental management considerations have been
integrated into ongoing business practices.” Furthermore, the company has concentrated its
research efforts in the development of new energy systems with lower carbon emissions and
increased fuel efficiency, and has been collaborating with General Motors and Toyota on fuel
cell technologies. Unlike BP, ExxonMobil has not only sought to improve environmental
performance on the supply side, within its production lines, but also on the consumer end
ExxonMobil’s Approach to the Environment and its Business
Rather than pursuing a riskier long term approach like BP, ExxonMobil has chosen to
focus on protecting and improving its short and medium-term investments. The uncertainty
regarding best technologies and regulatory regimes, as well as the high costs of renewable
energy and the public’s unwillingness to pay higher energy prices, all contribute to support
The company acknowledges the importance of renewables in the long run, but views
hydrogen and fuel cell technologies as having the greatest potential to reduce emissions from
transportation. Given that the industry will be dominated by oil and gas for the next thirty to
fifty years, ExxonMobil views reducing the environmental impact of their use as the best means
of protection (“Environment: BP Beats Emissions Target”: 2002). To further these more
immediate improvements, the company is collaborating with Toyota and General Motors to
explore options such as hybrid vehicles that combine conventional battery-powered systems for
greater fuel efficiency (www.exxon.mobil.com).
This approach to environmental protection reflects the uncertainty of regulations.
Companies such as ExxonMobil are reluctant to take drastic measures to reform and “clean”
their operations because it is difficult to calculate the costs and benefits of such investments. For
instance, if a company were to build a more efficient plant now, before regulations are in place,
those actions may not count towards credits when regulations are written years later. In the
prevailing market, firms are finding it difficult to calculate liability because it is contingent on
future regulations. A report being drafted by the Rose Foundation for Communities, a
shareholder advocacy group, predicted shareholder losses from “fines, penalties, and cleanup
costs due to violation of environmental laws, increased costs due to changes in environmental
regulation, and greater-than-expected costs due to understated or undisclosed liabilities”
(Cortese: 2002). Another report by the World Resource Institute, an environmental research
group, asserts that regulatory and other efforts to curb climate change may cause shareholders in
leading oil and gas companies to lose six percent or more of the value of their investments.
ExxonMobil’s focus on improving current energy uses also reflects the uncertain future
of renewables due to their high cost and the public’s unwillingness to pay more for energy.
According to a report by the Cato Institute in Power Economics, renewable sources of energy
such as solar and wind power, face a trajectory of rising costs and cannot compete with
conventional generating technologies. The production costs of renewables vary widely due to
the dependence on their location. Therefore, ideal sites will produce lower-cost power but the
number of such sites is limited. Therefore, ideal sites will be developed before higher-cost sites,
causing the future price of renewable energy to rise. Furthermore, the dependence of production
costs and generating capacity of solar and wind power on weather conditions, makes them
unsuitable sources for continuous power generation. Traverse City Light and Power for instance,
installed one of the largest wind generators in the country in 1996. Wind speeds have been
fifteen to twenty percent below projected averages, however, and the plant has produced only
sixty-seven percent of the anticipated electricity (Taylor and Vandoren: 2002).
If one were to take public opinion polls at their face value, investments in renewable
energy might be more attractive. Over the last several years, the polls have continued to suggest
that consumers are willing to pay higher energy costs if doing so will improve environmental
quality. In reality, this is not the case. One may point to the US debate several years ago during
the Clinton administration over a proposal to raise taxes on gasoline. The proposal met strong
resistance from the American public. Examples of cases where Americans are offered a choice
between energy sources also points to the public’s unwillingness to pay for renewable energy.
Across twenty-eight states, eighty utilities offer special packages of renewable energy to
ratepayers at a premium. The power costs between 0.4-20 cents per kWh more than the
conventional power in these plans, with a median premium of 2.5 cents per kWh. Due to the
higher costs, no more than one and a half percent of customers in any state have signed up for
such programs (Taylor and Vandoren).
While the ultimate success of BP’s green marketing strategy and bid to gain competitive
advantage will be revealed in the long term, it has been successful in improving its image and
gaining brand recognition. In an increasingly competitive industry, the image and recognition
gained from first-mover advantages will most likely prove fruitful. ExxonMobil on the other
hand, has not ignored the environment, but due to its sheer size on the global market, it does not
feel the need BP does to use such strategies to gain competitive advantage. As one industry
expert heard ExxonMobil executives say, they will continue to serve the interests of shareholders
and will invest in the technologies they feel will best meet current energy needs. The company is
prepared to “take the hits” as they come and believes it will withstand the criticism (Goldwyn,
David: 2002). BP, however, does not have ExxonMobil’s luxury of size. The majority of its
effort may be a public relations ploy, but as industry expert David Goldwyn states, in the current
competitive climate, a company’s “reputation is as big as its market” and the PR game isn’t such
a bad idea.
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