Changing ‘face’ of propane finds fans among marketers

March 1, 2007 By    

Instead of the coarsely drawn adult cartoon of a bespectacled, beleaguered, paunchy Texan propane retailer, this “face” of the propane industry has the strength of “Mr. Clean” and apple-pie appeal.

The familiar faces of the Energy Guys help customers identify with the themes of a product they cannot see, hear or touch.
The familiar faces of the Energy Guys help customers identify with the themes of a product they cannot see, hear or touch.

Aptly known as “Propane,” this Energy Guy, who first entered the advertising landscape in 2004 in a series of humorous television commercials and print ads pairing him with Electricity, has helped to transform the image of the propane industry. Where propane might once have seemed low-brow and outside the mainstream, the Energy Guys campaign is being credited with raising public awareness about the fuel and setting a new, more professional standard for the industry.

It wasn’t long ago that propane retailers were on their own when it came to marketing. Many smaller retailers lacked professional experience in planning their advertisements and didn’t know whom to ask for advice. Some larger retailers had a communications specialist on staff, but lacked the public awareness.

Today, with the help of the Propane Education & Research Council‘s consumer education campaign, retailers can simply add their own information to nationally produced ads to have professional materials run in their local newspapers. Although that option was available for the campaign’s earlier efforts, the Energy Guys concept better engages the viewers, retailers say.

Life-size, cardboard cutouts of the Energy Guys on showroom floors help tie local propane businesses to the far-reaching national ad campaign message.
Life-size, cardboard cutouts of the Energy Guys on showroom floors help tie local propane businesses to the far-reaching national ad campaign message.

Darren Engle, marketing director for Blue Star Gas in Central Point, Ore., admits the ads he’s creating today are light years better than those from six or seven years ago.

“We had pulled other pieces from PERC, but they were kind of just, in a sense, floundering. They didn’t have a spokesman; they had the brand name but there was no common theme,” Engle says.

“We do get a lot of comments that ‘those guys are so funny.’ For us as an industry, it’s good to have an exciting twist instead of just boring propane. Our product is very boring, but this gives us a face that is not boring, it’s comical.”

Engle says the Internet has made consumers more savvy, and many have come to expect every company to have the same level of professionalism. That’s why he’s glad the Energy Guys campaign is helping to erase connections with Hank Hill, the fictional protagonist of FOX Broadcasting Co.’s “King of the Hill” cartoon.

“That whole thing painted the industry as rednecks, and low-class,” Engle says of the TV show. “This doesn’t paint us in a negative light. This has been better accepted in the industry.”

Across the country, rising prices have soured survey respondents on all types of energy. However, pollster Harris Interactive told PERC in December it had determined a 2 percent increase since May in “favorability” toward propane, a 5 percent increase in thoughts that propane represents a “good value,” 4 percent increase in “trust,” and a 5 percent increase in thoughts that propane is safe.

And, since the Energy Guys launched Feb. 20, 2004, visits to the industry’s consumer Web site ( and use of the “find a propane retailer” feature have increased during months of each year in which the commercials were aired.

According to PERC, first-time visitors to the Web site were at an all-time high in 2006, and exceeded goals by nearly 180 percent. Some 585,013 people visited the Web site in 2006, and 215,737 searched for propane retailers in their area, according to Kate Caskin, PERC’s senior vice president.

While the national campaign helps local retailers, it is also strengthened when companies use parts in their communities, she says.

“It’s an important part of the campaign for us,” Caskin says. “What we’re trying to do is work with the industry so you have the national, state and local efforts working together for the greatest possible impact in the market.”

Retailers can download more than 100 different elements featuring the Energy Guys from the industry’s Marketing Resource Center, at The elements can be used in ads or made into decals.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of downloaded materials since the Energy Guys campaign kicked off,” says Megan Barber, vice president of advertising for Porter Novelli, the advertising agency that conceived the campaign.

Although members of the propane industry are glad to have increased consumer attention, the whole idea is to increase the number of gallons sold each year. PERC is well aware of some retailers’ lingering concern that the millions of dollars spent on a high-profile campaign will be worth it.

“The ultimate goal for the campaign is not only to increase awareness, but to motivate the consumer to use more propane, and we’ve started down that path in terms of the numbers of new propane households created,” Caskin says.

An April 2006 market metrics initiative report studying the data from July 2003 to June 2004 – the most recent time frame for which data was available – found 15,110 new propane households were heated with propane as a result of PERC’s investment in residential programs, for an 8.2 percent return on investment.

“When you consider how many advertisements on a weekly basis consumers are exposed to, if this campaign can help cut through the clutter so consumers can pay attention to propane, we’re doing our job and that’s exciting,” she says.

Tom Daniels, plant manager for Valley Co-Ops Inc., in Jerome, Idaho, is one who believes the campaign has helped his business. His sales are up at least 200,000 gallons this year over last year – and he credits the co-op’s use of the larger-than-life-size image of “Propane” on the side of his trucks.

“When we stuck them on the delivery trucks, we started getting some really good feedback,” Daniels says. “It seemed to be pretty eye-catching to people. You never really know if (marketing efforts are) working or not, but we seem to be way busier than normal.”

The images became so popular among customers wanting to know more that one of the drivers researched the actor’s name (Dan Warner) and posted it inside the office.

“It’s so hard to really track that stuff, because every year the guys are busy this time of year, but it seemed right there through the fall (when they first used the decals) there was a lot of new business coming in,” Daniels says. “We were like, ‘Geez, if it’s working, we should start putting them on the dispensers too.'”

Steven Holloway, senior vice president of Albany, Ga.-based Modern Gas, says the company has attracted attention with the “Propane” character decal on its delivery and service trucks

“We like the branding of that image because people recognize him,” said Holloway, whose company bought Bi-County Gas last May. Bi-County had used the decal on its truck too. Modern Gas also has a cardboard cut-out of the Energy Guys in its showroom.

Warner’s image as Propane is so familiar, some customers have asked if he were Holloway’s brother.

“That lets us know people are associating that (image) with Modern Gas,” Holloway says. “We want to tie that national image into our local business.”

Holloway and Daniels say the Energy Guys campaign has been worth the industry’s investment, because it has raised their profile in their communities. Previous commercials were well done, but the Energy Guys concept offers something unique.

“I think it’s the cleverness of it, because you’re taking the fuel and associating it with an individual,” says Holloway, who represents Georgia on the National Propane Gas Association board. “Because propane itself is such a commodity, it’s hard to give it that ‘warm fuzzy,’ and he gives it that warm, fuzzy feel that people associate with it. It’s just clever.”

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