Making the Grade

March 1, 2003 By    

Pouring millions of dollars into a national advertising campaign seems to be catching the attention of the audience that the propane industry is counting on to boost residential sales nationwide.

Now in its third year, the multi-media campaign to heighten consumer awareness and convince homeowners to make propane their preferred energy choice appears to be reaching its target. Follow-up research to last year’s $13 million blitz shows a significant gain in overall consumer awareness – and more.

Wirthlin Worldwide, an international market research firm hired by the Propane Education & Research Council to assess the campaign’s progress, conducted pre- and post-campaign tracking studies of the advertising’s impact. Using consumer interviews, the company measured the March 2002 pre-campaign results to consumer awareness and attitudes immediately following the completion of the ad runs last November.

Wirthlin’s research found:

  • The advertising is reaching the target audience. Research shows significant increases in overall propane awareness, awareness of the ad campaign, and of the “Propane. Exceptional Energy” theme line. On a national level, awareness of that brand identity has more than doubled.
  • In both national and local markets, consumer interest in obtaining information about propane has increased significantly since the advertising launch.
  • The gap between propane and electricity as the energy source of preference has closed both locally and nationally by 4-5 percentage points.
  • The perception of several of propane’s strategic elements has improved, especially its efficiency (up 16 points), reliability (up 11 points) and good value (up 7 points).
  • PERC’s website (www.usepropane.com), which contains the Energy Savings Calculator that is promoted in the campaign, continues to gain users. In October and November, the site was viewed by 12,000 visitors per month – double the number in February 2002.
  • The website is getting visits from a greater percentage of consumers and homeowners – 74 percent in fall 2002, up from 64 percent in spring 2002.

Building on Momentum

Encouraged by Wirthlin’s findings, PERC council members in December voted to expand the campaign funding by almost 25 percent in 2003 – to $17 million – for TV, radio and print ads that continue to promote propane’s key attributes (trusted, reliable, clean-burning, efficient and good value).

State associations are taking advantage of the campaign's initiative to tailor a local message.
State associations are taking advantage of the campaign’s initiative to tailor a local message.

“It’s an old clich but actions speak louder than words. Approving $17 million for 2003 will allow us to expand the campaign to reach even more consumers with messages about the benefits of using propane,” says Kate Caskin, PERC’s vice president of communications.

“The council wanted to make sure it is being representative of the industry, and that what we said we were going to do and achieve in consumer awareness through the ad campaign did happen. And it did. That’s good news. The numbers speak for themselves, and these are important benchmarks for gauging and assessing progress at this time.”

Exceeding expectations

In truth, even the folks running the campaign were surprised at 2002’s success. The program’s five-year schedule had projected growth in consumers’ awareness of propane by now, but that recognition wasn’t expected to translate into consumer attitude changes until the end of 2003. Altering consumer attitudes is the major step that precedes getting them to buy more propane.

“In the right environment, our messages have had a lot of traction. We saw the results we expected on the local level, but the national program performed a lot better than we thought it would,” concedes Andy Ferrin, senior vice president at Porter Novelli ad agency, which is directing the campaign.

“The efficiency of the media buy and the effectiveness of the messages have all played a part, and certainly the participation of the industry is adding to the effort. All those things coming together is the key. I can’t point to any one element as driving its success; it’s more all the parts working together.”

Does the unexpected success of last year’s effort raise the bar for expectations with the 2003 program?

 

Beyond recognizing the campaign ads, consumers last year were moved to pick up the phone or go to a Web site to learn more about using propane in their homes.
Beyond recognizing the campaign ads, consumers last year were moved to pick up the phone or go to a Web site to learn more about using propane in their homes.

“We still need to set those expectations,” Ferrin says. “We promised the council that we would come back in March with what we expect to achieve in 2003. The best we can do is set reasonable expectations and mark our progress against those goals. Ultimately, we will get to behavior change and be able to determine what the return on investment for that will be.”

Support from propane retailers at industry events and in feedback to PERC have been as compelling as the research numbers.

“Folks in the field are standing up and saying that they are seeing results in sales in their local market where the ads are running. That anecdotal evidence is over and above the Wirthlin numbers and is very encouraging. It gives the council the confidence to move forward,” Caskin says.

“We hope that word is getting out to the industry and giving them confidence in the program as well.”

2003 Objectives

Buoyed by the Wirthlin data, the 2003 campaign continues to focus on reaching consumers when and where they are most likely to be receptive to the message. As in 2002, TV time slots for advertising will favor opportunities to reach consumers who are already thinking about remodeling or building.

Since Wirthlin’s research found that the younger segments of the audience were more responsive to the pitch – especially in their interest in obtaining more information – the targeted audience demographic has been shifted from ages 35-64 to 25-54.

PERC’s extra funding will expand both the national and local market buys in 2003. Nationally, the cable and satellite media plan has been expanded with additional syndicated home-improvement programming (Bob Vila, This Old House, Rebecca’s Garden) as well as programming that reaches a strong rural audience (Country Music Television, Outdoor Life, Speed Channel).

Last year, the ads were shown an average of 34 times a week for 16 weeks in March, May, September and November on HGTV, A&E, The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and Do-It-Yourself Network.

The first phase of the 2003 campaign, which began in February and ends in June, features the same spots in the same 22 local markets that were targeted last year. It also keeps the current mix of TV and radio throughout the year.

 

The advertising experts say it will take up to five years - and upwards of $68 million - to build consumer awareness sufficiently to change their propane buying habits.
The advertising experts say it will take up to five years – and upwards of $68 million – to build consumer awareness sufficiently to change their propane buying habits.

Next September, the local component will be broadened with the addition of 25 more rural, growing markets. Those communities have not yet been chosen.

“Last year some folks have had the perception that the campaign was not working for them if they were not doing business in one of those 22 local markets,” Caskin notes. “Now we will have more ads on TV reaching more people and being promoted through a wider network within the industry.”

Leveraging the reach

PERC wants marketers to further extend the campaign by creating ads for their markets using camera-ready art and CD-Roms with electronic photos and copy.

The newest TV spot highlights to versatility of propane in the home, from safe lighting at the front door  . . .
The newest TV spot highlights to versatility of propane in the home, from safe lighting at the front door . . .

The “tool kit” allows marketers to personalize their companies on professional-quality designs that perpetuate the national campaign message. To date, 1,660 kits have been distributed nationwide.

Through its Consumer Education Partnership with States program, PERC will match 50 cents for every dollar spent on media placement of PERC-produced materials for state marketing campaigns. To date, more than $1 million has been given to states, and in 2003 more than $2 million will be available for state marketing campaigns.

“We’re going to be reaching even more people across the country – more potential propane users than we did in 2002,” Caskin says.

Fresh messages

There also will be some fresh creative material to add to the mix of messages. A new, 30-second TV spot, “Propane Country,” features the variety of different uses propane can deliver around the home. Viewers are guided through the front door, past the just-dried tablecloth being spread on the dining room table, past the boiling pot on the gas stove, through the cozy family room with burning fireplace and out to the back deck where the sizzling burgers are just coming off the gas grill.

. . . to reliable cooking in the kitchen.
. . . to reliable cooking in the kitchen.

There also are two new, 60-second radio commercials.

In “Surprise, Surprise” a father waiting for his son to finish before taking his turn to shower gripes about the cold water he expects. But there is plenty of hot water because his wife has switched from electricity to propane water heating. The narrator explains that Bob now can have hot showers anytime since propane heats water twice as fast as electricity, at one-third less the cost.

“House Personality” gives voice to several houses that discuss differences in their architectural styles, locations and energy uses (swimming pool, dryer, central heat, oven, grill, etc.). “No two homes are exactly alike,” explains the narrator, “and neither are their energy bills. But the desire to save money is universal.”

Listeners are then directed to the Energy Savings Calculator at the www.usepropane.com website to find out exactly how much switching from electricity to propane can save.

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