Branding in Body Armour: Risk and Respect in Southern Iraq


Forging an authentic and meaningful brand for major projects in complex and challenging regions is under-rated as a tool for managing risk – but not at the Rumaila oilfield in Southern Iraq.

The message was blunt. In the hot and dusty de-gassing station on the north of the giant Rumaila oilfield, the Iraqis who had gathered to share their hopes, dreams and expectations from BP and PetroChina’s contract to redevelop the field were clear. They wanted, above everything else, ‘to be respected’. And, they told me, they wanted ‘to make Basrah beautiful again.’

This was not a neat and tidy event – calling it a ‘focus group’ (or even a ‘meeting’) would imply a structure that, to be quite frank, it lacked. Outside, temperatures hovered around 50 degrees centigrade. Curious oilfield workers wandered in and out of the control room. Some were sceptical; some helpful and patient.; some angry. At times I found it difficult to keep track of what was being said. And I’m pretty sure my young interpreter was completely baffled about why on earth we were there.

The reason was one of the most extraordinary chapters of my career. Put simply, we had decided to turn the principles of stakeholder engagement inwards. To make Rumaila stand for what the Iraqis on the field felt it should; to build what the extraordinary team at Pulse Brands, who were working with me on this project, describe as a ‘purposeful’ brand.

At the time, stakeholder engagement in the oil and gas industry generally meant looking outwards to the communities most directly impacted by activities. To me, relegating the views of our workers to a secondary activity simply didn’t (and doesn’t) make sense. We had 10,000 people working on Rumaila, all of whom deserved ‘respect’ for what they had achieved in some of the toughest conditions imaginable.

You can’t embark on a project like this without an agency who is in lock-step with what you are trying to achieve. In Pulse Brands we found it. They also had the pioneering spirit, sensitivity and creativity necessary to work in a place where a one-man office was occupied by five people, where trips were ‘movements’, sites were code-names and where our plans were more often than not scuppered by colleagues with more urgent calls on bed-space and bodyguards.

We persevered and we improvised. We did not always hear what we expected. The emphasis on beauty over power and strength was a surprise. No one seemed willing to talk about the past – this was almost exclusively about a better future for future generations. Suspicions about BP’s motives were common, but less so than I expected. Disenchantment was less prevalent than determination.

The magic happened quickly. Returning to the de-gassing station with our interpretation of what they had told us, including seven different visual interpretations of the identity, was nerve-wracking – but the emotional response to one of the designs hinted strongly about what was to come. It was both a ‘symbol of growth’ and a ‘signifier of new life’, a ‘flower’ and a ‘teardrop’ and a ‘grain of sand’. Importantly it also had a strong affiliation with the logo of Iraq’s South Oil Company. It was respectful – and proved we were listening. Its adoption was signified by the round of applause which greeted its unveiling at Rumaila’s senior management meeting. Its success was immediate, and viral.

This is not my story any more. I left the Rumaila team in 2011. It belongs now to the team from Pulse and the Rumaila oilfield, who swapped their Kevlar and coveralls for dicky bows and penguin suits to pick up a stunning win for Internal Communications and Employee Engagement at the 2017 PR Week Awards in London last week.

Perhaps it was never my story – and perhaps that’s the point. From the start, it was the story of Rumaila - and the extraordinary people who work there.