Environmental playbook positions propane to prevail in a clean energy future

July 1, 2021 By    

You’re reading part one of a three-part series about the propane industry’s new environmental messaging campaign. Read part two and three.

Listen to the “Path to Zero” podcast, hosted by Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) President and CEO Tucker Perkins, and you begin to hear a new type of conversation about propane and its environmental profile. Consider it a pep talk.

As Perkins engages with thought leaders on energy and the environment, you’ll hear provocative messages about the role propane can play on the path toward a clean energy future.

You’ll also hear a communication style that seeks to disarm listeners and open minds in a national energy conversation increasingly hostile toward even low-carbon fuels like propane.

But the podcast is just one play in an industrywide game plan developed by leadership to communicate propane’s environmental strengths.

According to that playbook, all industry members must lace up their cleats to secure propane’s future in a rapidly changing energy sector.

A provocative story

Propane’s unified environmental messaging campaign has been in the works for about a year, but the energy trends that spurred action have been gaining traction for much longer.

“I think we as an industry were collectively slow to recognize that we have a meteor coming toward us,” says Steve Kaminski, president and CEO of the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA). “It is the electrification movement. It’s not just coming toward us. It’s already here, especially in the eyes of consumers and, from my perspective, in the eyes of policymakers.”

Perkins says most of the environmental thought leaders with whom he’s conversed – “people who think about policy and energy all day long” – haven’t thought much about propane, which puts pressure on the industry to make its story heard.

And in some cases where propane has received attention, it’s been colored by the increasingly entrenched view that electricity – no matter how it’s produced – is good and that fossil fuels – even low-carbon ones like propane – are bad. Perkins says he can think of a few instances in which writers specifically call propane “just another dirty fossil fuel.”

“That’s the perception we need to change,” he says. “Because it’s not a dirty fossil fuel.”

Kaminski and Perkins are members of a joint task force of PERC and NPGA leaders working to change those perceptions and tell propane’s environmental story more effectively. Other task force members include AmeriGas’ Michelle Bimson Maggi, Blossman Gas’ Stuart Weidie, Blue Star Gas’ Jeff Stewart and Dead River Co.’s Casey Cramton.

Leadership identified the need to reach a wide-ranging audience of policymakers, thought leaders and consumers, and to engage propane marketers in that effort. The task force worked with a public relations firm to test possible messages with a group of industry members, environmentalists and consultants.

Testing found that propane’s message needed to address the view that oil and gas companies are standing in the way of progress to protect profits; moral certitude about the need to reverse climate change; and a sense of urgency that we must act quickly to prevent climate chaos. Two core messages emerged from that process:

  • Access to clean, affordable and renewable energy like propane ensures equity on the path to zero emissions.
  • Clean and renewable energy like propane accelerates decarbonization.

Combined, the messages convey that the propane industry is committed to not only rapidly lowering carbon emissions but also ensuring no one is left behind by exorbitant prices or unreliable access to energy during that process. Implied in the messaging is that both conventional and renewable propane will assist on that path, and that propane is just one part of a larger solution that includes other clean energies, such as wind and solar.

The messages support a goal set by PERC two years ago to be more provocative in its approach to environmental issues, says Perkins.

“Provocative doesn’t mean necessarily ‘offensive,’ but it literally mean[s] ‘to provoke thought,’” he explains. “And so, we have really tried to do that for two years – be in conversations that we previously were not and to make claims that we previously did not that provoked a conversation about could, in fact, propane be a part of the solution?”

By communicating shared goals with those who may not know about – or are even suspicious of – propane’s place in a clean energy future, the messages encourage audiences to open their minds and question why electrification must be the only path forward.

“Really, the story that should be told is, yeah, let’s do reduce our carbon. Let’s do reduce our emissions. Let’s do be thoughtful and impactful on equity. But you don’t need to go to a narrow path of decarbonization to achieve that,” says Perkins. “In fact, Texas showed us this winter, California shows us almost every wildfire season, that this narrow path of electrification is, in fact, quite dangerous, quite unhealthy, not good for equity, not good for resilience, really not good for energy security, not good for any of the things that we really want to get out of our energy complex.”

‘Energy for Everyone’

Supporting the messaging pillars is PERC’s new logo and brand identity – “Energy for Everyone” – which replaces the “Clean American Energy” identity launched in 2014.

Propane brand logo“The landscape has changed since ‘Clean American Energy’ was released,” explains Erin Hatcher, PERC’s senior vice president of communications and marketing. “It’s changed even in the past 18 months. We have to pivot and demonstrate how we’re a viable energy solution in the mix.”

The logo evokes the decarbonization message with a blue, green and yellow scheme that signifies water, land and sunshine, while the “Energy for Everyone” tagline foregrounds the equity message.

Thirteen logo and tagline prompts were tested through a live, online survey of consumer and professional audiences, including construction pros, agriculture producers, fleet managers, environmental thought leaders, as well as propane marketers and some state executives. The testing revealed that the equity-driven tagline plays better to a wider audience and is easier for the average consumer to grasp compared to the decarbonization message, explains Hatcher.

Testing also indicated that audiences find the final product interesting and accessible: “Existing customers tended to be more willing to learn more. And prospective customers tended to be willing to learn and consider propane,” says Perkins.

The playbook

To support a unified messaging push, leadership outlined a game plan that divides responsibilities among industry members based on target audiences.

Illustration by Mike Right (grass, arrows); VectorPocket/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Illustration by Mike Right (grass, arrows); VectorPocket/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

NPGA will carry the messages to legislators and regulators on all levels of government. The association runs both offensive and defensive plays to expand propane’s opportunities and limit expansion of electrification.

Notable in the past year and a half is the association’s effort to pass energy choice legislation that prevents localities from banning new gas hookups. As of July 1, legislation had passed in 18 states, protecting 33 percent of propane gallons sold in the U.S.

NPGA staff members and lobbyists use the two messaging pillars every time they talk to policymakers, says Kaminski. He notes that it’s especially helpful when marketers use the talking points to not only engage with public officials but also educate consumers: “[The messaging campaign] is really good at helping marketers and consumers convey these points, and then that bubbles up to policy because consumers, in my mind, are voters,” he says.

PERC serves as one of the main resources for propane marketers to learn about the new identity and incorporate it into their operations. Retailers will find a toolkit of materials at propane.com and can expect educational sessions and communications, including webinars, in the weeks and months to come.

PERC also focuses its efforts on the general public, whether consumers in propane country or thought leaders wherever they live.

Perkins says he spends a lot of his time now talking to thought leaders such as university presidents, writers or editors.

“What we’re trying to make sure is at least they’re talking about the attributes of propane in the way we think they should be talked about,” he says.

Part of PERC’s strategy is a rapid-response program that triages and seeks to correct faulty media coverage within 48 hours. Resulting materials are added to PERC’s environmental newsroom.

However, the success of the campaign hinges on the grassroots efforts of marketers and their state and regional associations, say task force leaders.

“The state associations need to lead because marketers are generally much closer to their state association than they are to anything going on at the national level, whether it’s NPGA or PERC,” says Weidie.

State and regional associations will have packages of educational, marketing and communications materials at their disposal to drive engagement among marketer members. PERC is also helping to fund states with a double-match program for local media buys.

In addition, states and marketers will have access to a set of sub-messages consistent with the overarching messaging pillars but tailored to the concerns of particular audiences and locales.

These sub-messages were tested for efficacy in each of the four U.S. regions, allowing PERC, with feedback from state executives, to customize media plans.

PERC has budgeted $10 million to $12 million per year to support the environmental playbook, including thought leadership, blogs, the “Path to Zero” podcast, PERC’s messages and its technology development. Perkins envisions the possibility of budgeting $15 million to $20 million in the future as the council and industry members gain confidence in the effort. For major campaigns in the past, PERC spent as much as $25 million a year, he notes.

Meanwhile, NPGA will raise its 2022 membership dues in large part to support the environmental push.

But marketers should understand that the unified environmental messaging campaign runs deeper than an advertising campaign, says Weidie:

“This is not an advertising campaign replacement. This isn’t Propane Can Do That or Blue the Dog. That’s not what we’re doing here. This is more about establishing the brand for propane and what it is and what it represents. We have a great energy source.”

A starting point

From Weidie’s perspective as president and CEO of Mississippi-based Blossman Gas, the campaign is a “great departure from the past” in terms of environmental communication.

“We have been pretty good at communicating data and facts,” he adds. “But there’s more to this messaging campaign and the communications programs associated with it than data and facts.”

Now, propane marketers must be good storytellers, too: “We have to tell our story to all of the communities that we live in,” says Stewart, president of Blue Star Gas in California and a task force member.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of data, however. Stewart encourages marketers to take the time to understand the materials available at propane.com, including a reference guide of citations that ground the messaging pillars in fact.

For Weidie, the first step marketers should take is to be open to the necessity of the campaign. While some areas aren’t dealing with challenges on the environmental front today, that may not be true in another three to five years, he says:

“We need to be prepared to advocate strongly for our energy source. We need to be open to accepting these ideas, messages, stories, themes and data.”

From there, it’s important to use the tools available in day-to-day operations and educate the community, he says.

For example, Blossman Gas will post some of the new materials on the environmental benefits page of its website so the company’s message aligns with that of PERC, NPGA and state associations: “We want to contribute to making the message unified instead of being off in some other direction,” says Weidie.

Stewart’s starting place involves training all members of the Blue Star Gas staff on the talking points. He’s organizing webinars and discussion forums to assist the learning process.

Perkins asks marketers simply to learn about and understand the new identity: “I think if they do that, then they will embrace it because they’ll see that it really gives them the ability to talk about their business in the language of today but also to be positioned in the language of tomorrow. … For once, we are delivering the right product at the right time.”

Featured illustration by Mike Right

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