Brand Promise Confusion - Is It a Water Company or an Oil Company?

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Posted Aug 26, 2011
Susan Gunelius

As part of a company restructuring and subsequent rebranding initiative, a new logo debuted this summer for Ohio-based Marathon Oil Corporation. Given the tainted reputation of oil companies that was exacerbated by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the importance of creating a visual representation of an oil company's brand promise is a challenging one. Consumers don't trust oil companies and the anti-environment stigma that surrounds oil brands isn't going to go away anytime soon.

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marathon logo

That was the challenge facing Marathon Oil Corporation, and the image to the left shows the company's new logo.

When I first saw this logo, I had three reactions, not as a branding expert but as a consumer.

First, I was confused by the logo icon that looks like waves of water. Why make the waves blue if the company isn't trying to evoke images of water?

Second, I felt offended. I imagined a group of oil company executives as villains in a silent movie twirling their handle bar mustaches and laughing as they came up with this logo design. Cue evil music and evil laugh, "Yes, let's make the logo look like clean, environmentally-friendly, water. Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Third, I showed the logo to my husband who instantly shouted, "That's gold, Jerry. Gold!"

So I did some poking around to find out if my clearly biased opinions are mine alone or if the broader consumer audience felt the same way. I read through the comments on the Brand New blog where logo designers weighed in on the Marathon Oil Corporation logo. While their design complaints were centered primarily around the odd kerning used in the typography, the conversation repeatedly turned to the disconnect between an oil company and a blue wave icon.

Survey Says

Finally, I launched an AYTM consumer opinion survey and got the reactions and feelings of everyday consumers. First, the survey participants were shown the wave icon without the company name or any other reference to what the icon was for.

Respondents were asked to provide the one word that came to their minds when they saw the image. As expected, 52% said the icon made them think of water, the ocean, fluid, and so on. Only one respondent stated that they thought of oil, most likely because they recognized the icon.

Next, respondents were asked what type of company they thought would use the icon in its logo and what product or service it would provide. The responses were more varied this time, but again, water was the most common response with 34% of respondents believing the icon would be most suited to a water company, boat manufacturer, surfboard company, or other company that worked with water in some way. 15% thought the icon represented a technology company.

Other popular answers included travel companies, shipping companies, transit companies, media companies, telecommunications or wireless phone carrier companies, cleaning companies, and broadcast companies. While energy company was mentioned several times, it was usually connected in consumers' responses with phrases like clean energy and hydro-energy. Just 1% of respondents mentioned oil. Again, these are likely respondents who recognized the logo.

Immediately it's clear that the Marathon Oil Corporation logo is confusing to consumers based on the above results. Now, here is where it gets even more interesting.

Respondents were asked if the icon was appealing to them. They still did not know what company the logo icon represented. 87% of respondents indicated that the icon was appealing to them. Next, respondents were told that the icon is part of an oil company's logo and shown the full Marathon Oil Corporation logo. They were then asked if they think the icon and logo matches what an oil company promises, sells, and stands for. 63% of respondents said no, the logo does not match an oil company.

Last, respondents were asked how the logo makes them feel about the oil company that uses it. Fortunately for Marathon Oil Corporation, just 10% of respondents felt that the logo made the company less trustworthy and 70% said the logo had no effect on their feelings for the company at all. 20% actually thought the logo made the oil company more trustworthy.

You can view the complete survey results in the widget below.  

Oil Company Rebranding Redux

BP Logo

This story reminds me of the BP rebranding of 2000 where British Petroleum changed its name to BP and launched a new tagline, Beyond Petroleum, and a new logo to hype its environmental and solar power commitments. It took some time for consumers to buy into the new BP brand, but eventually, the new logo and tagline were accepted by the masses. Of course, that was before the 2010 oil spill that spawned consumer outcry against BP and a scathing BP logo redesign contest that attracted widespread publicity from major media organizations like Time,, The Consumerist, and more.

I suspect that Marathon Oil Corporation will find acceptance of its logo, too. However, it's very likely that it will take time to clear up the confusion that the logo creates in consumers' minds. That's another investment Marathon Oil Corporation will have to make toward its rebranding.
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Image: Marathon Oil Corporation

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