New agency weighs future of propane industry advertising campaign

November 1, 2008 By and    

For 10 years, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) has worked to advance the use of propane in this country by raising awareness among consumers, homeowners and builders. For nine of those years, the council was helped by Porter Novelli, a global advertising agency that offered guidance and created advertisements to boost the council’s communication efforts.

Perhaps the best-known product of that collaboration has been the Energy Guys – the comical, white T-shirted duo of Propane and Electricity sparring on radio and television commercials, and in newspaper and magazines ads. The characters were so ubiquitous and well liked, many marketers chose to incorporate them into their own advertising and plastered Propane’s image on the sides of their bobtails.

But after working for 10 years to educate the public about propane, PERC has decided it needs to shake things up a bit. At a meeting this summer, a new agency – Minneapolis-based Colle+McVoy – was chosen as its lead marketing communications partner. The agency will get a portion of the $22.3 million consumer education budget the council is planning for 2009.

Porter Novelli was “a very strong partner,” says Kate Caskin, PERC’s senior vice president, but it was time to “ramp up our efforts” and “take it to the next level, with the goal of turning awareness into action and selling new propane gallons across all propane markets.”

“They demonstrated an incredible passion for wanting this business, for wanting to work with the propane industry to help us turn awareness into action in the marketplace,” Caskin says of Colle+McVoy’s representatives. “Not only in the residential market, but in the other markets in which we do business.”

A strategic plan

The decision to change advertising agencies began with the strategic plan for 2008 through 2012, and its strong focus on commercializing the products in which PERC has invested in research and development. Council members urgently want to develop programs and outreach efforts to get new products, technologies and appliances into the marketplace to sell more propane, Caskin says. To implement the plan, a market development task force decided it was time to see if other communications agencies might be better suited for the next phase.

 Ann Wiessner is the account director at Colle+McVoy.
Ann Wiessner is the account director at Colle+McVoy.

Porter Novelli was among 25 firms that received requests for information in February, but early on, decided it was not going to put the effort into responding fully with a proposal, Caskin says.

Colle+McVoy, on the other hand, jumped in with both feet, researching the previous effort and performing in-home, in-office and in-field interviews with homeowners and building professionals, and dropping in on local marketers to discuss their businesses. After conducting such interviews in a 60-mile radius, the agency sent two researchers to Iowa, North Dakota and throughout Minnesota to sit down with eight building professionals about what they are looking for in an energy partner. They conducted telephone and in-home interviews with homeowners, even spending two to three hours with them to understand how they define their emotions with regard to propane.

2009 Resource Allocation
2009 Resource Allocation

They learned that people equated propane with family, patriotism, kids, people coming together, people holding hands. They found that people who live “off the grid” have a sense of pride, independence and security.

“There’s something about a tankless water heater that [people know] when the in-laws come over, they don’t have to worry about them using all the hot water,” David Denham, the agency’s director of strategic initiatives, told PERC representatives at PERC’s July meeting. “That earned endorsement – that advocacy – is golden.”

He also saw opportunities to build on the “personal” nature of propane.

“Propane feels more local. You see the tank right there. A guy comes and fills it up,” he says. “That’s equity that electricity doesn’t have, and natural gas doesn’t have. We should leverage that.”

Denham sees opportunity to build on Porter Novelli’s “Exceptional Energy” branding campaign by tying propane to users’ emotions.

“We’re giving people a lot of reasons to believe,” he says of the awareness campaign. “We’re not really giving them reasons to care.”

Linking propane to warm emotions is a strategy the agency representatives think is critical to advancing sales at a time when price is not a selling point.

“It’s a challenging time,” he told the group in its July presentation. “We need to increase gallons in a challenging time, and people really are expecting this council to help them do that. We need to find a way to engage all the members, galvanize the industry, and that is exactly what we want to do as well, to come out with a rallying cry that will get folks excited about the big challenges that are ahead, because it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Colle+McVoy strategists also see opportunity to pounce on what they perceive as a cultural movement back toward living locally, being independent and strengthening family ties. They see a shift in our worldview about how we consume and what is important, played out in the increasing number of farmer’s markets and a re-emergence of Sunday night family dinners, and characterized by authenticity and honesty.

“There’s an opportunity for industries to step up and be part of this change so consumers pull you into their lives,” Denham says. “We think there’s an opportunity for us to attach ourselves and be relevant to this group and not catch it on the back end but catch it on the front end. We think we can be really relevant to this crowd.”

Honing the message

Since the council approved Colle+McVoy in July, the agency has continued to research and discuss with PERC the best strategy for moving forward. The agency’s account director, Ann Wiessner, suggested in a telephone interview that the agency could start by promoting propane appliances, especially the tankless water heater. The water heaters are being included in more higher-end homes and fit the idea of people who choose to “leave the path behind,” Wiessner says.

Advertising campaign could face restriction
Advertising campaign could face restriction

However, the agency plans to do more than just create clever advertisements. It wants to help hone the message and strategy as a business-planning partner, to make sure that PERC spends its money wisely.

“We can help them look at how they should be allocating their resources,” Wiessner says.

In a follow-up presentation to the council last month, Wiessner and her colleagues pitched a major change in how campaign dollars are deployed. The new focus will be on building markets, not just serving them, she says.

Given the collapse of the home-building industry and consumer efforts to conserve, Colle+McVoy recommends shifting funds into the engine fuel market where it sees better growth opportunities around newly developed products ready for the market. The agency wants to double education to fleet owners and other targeted consumers.

Internal combustion engines accounted for just 6 percent of nationwide propane consumption in 2006, but propane use in on-road, off-road and stationary engines is expected to account for 43 percent of the 395 million new gallon sales projected in 2009 and 2010. Just 45 percent of those new gallons are expected in the residential market, which accounted for 57 percent of total sales two years ago.

The agency also wants to dedicate funding to more aggressively engage local propane marketers to help drive sales across all mission areas.

“This is the big nut to crack,” Wiessner acknowledges.

PERC and agency staff are hammering out funding details for the new strategy in preparation for a December council meeting that should finalize the 2009 budget.

A new campaign could be launched as early as fall 2009.

The Energy Guys

While Caskin and the Colle+McVoy representatives are careful to say that nothing has been decided, it is possible that the Energy Guys campaign will be phased out in favor of a new strategy.

Volume Summary 2006
Volume Summary 2006

After all, well-loved advertising campaigns come and go. Remember Spuds MacKenzie? “Where’s the beef?” The Marlboro Man? “You deserve a break today”?

Caskin says the agency and PERC need to evaluate where the Energy Guys campaign stands in relation to their new goals. “Should we build on ‘Exceptional Energy’ and the Energy Guys campaign, or is it necessary to move on? Those are all strategic questions that we are now diving into,” she says.

Colle+McVoy’s Wiessner says she’s often being asked about the Energy Guys’ future. “It’s a very preliminary question to answer now, when we need to talk about strategy and business platform,” she says. “You’ll certainly see them next year in fiscal year ’09, but beyond that, we don’t know yet. We’re not the new agency coming in and throwing everything out because we’re new.”

Setting aside the popular Energy Guys campaign in favor of a new direction does not scare councilman Joe Armentano, chief executive officer of Paraco Gas in Rye Brook, N.Y., and a member of PERC’s industry review team.

“I do not believe just because we have an investment in the Energy Guys we shouldn’t go forward with a new campaign,” Armentano says. “I don’t know any ad campaign that goes on forever.”

Volume Potential Summary 2009-2010
Volume Potential Summary 2009-2010

“The Energy Guys [campaign] was a brilliant stroke in solving our challenge from the awareness standpoint,” agrees Scott Brockelmeyer, director of communications and marketing for Ferrellgas and another member of the industry review team. “I think in some ways we’d like to see them stick around in some capacity, but who knows? It might not be the right long-term solution as we turn the page from awareness to action. As much as I liked [Bud Light’s] Spuds MacKenzie, he wore out his welcome. There’s a shelf life, and you know when it’s time to move on.”

Moving forward

The task at hand remains three-fold, Armentano says:

  • Regionalize marketing efforts. His market in the Northeast, for example, has an opportunity to challenge fuel oil in a bigger way, while other parts of the country are competing with electricity.
  • Help small marketers implement the message. Small marketers lack the resources and expertise to focus on sales and marketing, in addition to making deliveries and ensuring safety. “I think Colle+McVoy can act as a giant support group for the marketers who do not have the in-house capability and I think they can help us drive the culture a little bit,” Armentano says. “I think culturally we need to focus more on sales and marketing.”
  • Take a product-focused approach to the market. Promote products, such as lawnmowers and air conditioners, which can help marketers sell more gallons of propane.

Brockelmeyer says the groundwork laid by Porter Novelli successfully increased awareness about propane, but “it’s time to turn awareness into action, and that means more gallons in every segment of our industry. At the end of the day, that’s our goal as an industry, to increase gallons.”

Brockelmeyer is convinced that Colle+McVoy is just the firm to do that.

“This is exciting,” he says. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of something new.”

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