New marketing campaign designed to endear public to propane

June 3, 2016 By    

Blue the dog, whose owner is “a propane man,” gets top billing in the consumer education program that’s expected to launch this summer. Photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council.

One year after a federal government restriction on Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) efforts to educate the public about the benefits of propane, the industry is headed back to the consumer market this summer with a new $10 million national campaign – and a dog named Blue.

PERC made the official announcement about the campaign at last month’s NPGA Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo in Nashville, Tenn.

Not since the Energy Guys campaign has PERC created such a large-scale program designed to attract U.S. consumers to propane and away from energy competitors like electricity. But it hasn’t had that luxury for the past six-plus years, instead silenced by a U.S. Department of Commerce consumer-protection penalty that limited its public outreach efforts to research and development, safety and training after the price of propane rose above a predetermined threshold.

Led by PERC’s newly selected, Dallas-based branding agency, The Richards Group, the consumer education campaign will target the hard-hit residential market, working to improve the public’s perceptions of propane, highlighting the many uses for the fuel in and around the home, and ultimately growing gallons for the industry.

“I’m excited to get back out there and see the consumer response to our message,” says Roy Willis, PERC’s president and CEO.

The Blue concept

A Portuguese pointer has been pegged as the face of the campaign, with program leaders planning key advertising messages from June to September.

“I’m happy to tell you we’ve already got a spokesman under contract,” Willis told Propane Expo attendees as he outlined the industry’s plans.

Details of the campaign came to light in February when The Richards Group presented two concepts at a PERC meeting in Dallas. One involved a dog named Blue, whose owner in the ad is “a propane man.” The other concept, called “Home,” showed a man making a long journey to reunite with his family at their comfortable propane-fueled home.

After getting feedback from council members during that meeting, project leaders introduced both concepts to consumer-based focus groups in the Midwest, Northeast and South for additional input before making a final decision.

PERC President and CEO Roy Willis introduces the campaign to attendees at April’s Propane Expo in Nashville.

PERC President and CEO Roy Willis introduces the campaign to attendees at April’s Propane Expo in Nashville. Photo: LP Gas Magazine

The winning concept, Blue, immediately contextualizes and conveys propane’s benefits, creating an emotional connection with viewers and making a lasting impression, reports Gregg Walker, PERC’s director of communications.

“Blue is going to be a very interesting character for us, traveling with his bobtail driver, a propane man,” Willis says. “In a subtle way, it will help us create a sense of encouragement of young men and women … that maybe this propane business is not a bad one to get into.”

Blue will take to the airwaves across the United States in what project leaders describe as “national air cover.”

The campaign is going national “so that everybody gets a touch of this campaign in some form or fashion, especially since we’ve been off since 2009,” says Trent Walters, brand management/principal at The Richards Group and the PERC project lead. “Going national helps us work around political implications (of an election season). Politicians don’t tend to do a nationwide campaign but [instead target] more specific areas where they need to build some ground.”

In addition to choosing the Blue concept in March, project leaders found a dog to play Blue in the ads (his real name is Traveler, and he has a backup named Remington), selected a voice to convey Blue’s thoughts about his days on the job with a propane man and hired a director for the shoots.

“We needed to make sure we had a great voice for Blue,” Walters says. “His mouth never moves, but you can hear his thoughts. He has a great sense of humor and brings a lot of charm to the character.”

Building around research

Gregg Walker, PERC’s director of communications, outlines campaign concepts at a special session in Nashville.

Gregg Walker, PERC’s director of communications, outlines campaign concepts at a special session in Nashville. Photo: LP Gas Magazine

To help decipher its target audience and messaging, PERC partnered with consumer research firm Nielsen to conduct research on consumers’ perceptions of propane.

Nielsen surveyed 3,000 homeowners – propane users and nonusers – in propane country. It found 93 percent of users and 48 percent of nonusers are familiar with propane, while 64 percent of users and 26 percent of nonusers are favorable to propane. The results told PERC that it needed to increase the emotional connection between consumers and propane.

The campaign’s goal in the first year is “to increase the familiarity and favorability of propane,” says Dennis Vegas, PERC’s chief marketing officer, who was hired last year to help launch the campaign. “We have a ways to go to changing consumer behavior. We’ve got to be able to make people feel good about propane and know what the benefits are. It’s going to take some time to cultivate that relationship.”

The campaign will build messages around propane-fueled appliances used inside and outside the home. It will target consumers ages 35 to 65 who have limited or no access to natural gas, and it will use television, radio, digital and print methods to reach that audience.

“We’ve got to find ways to tap into the interests of consumers and how they want to use propane, and then talk to them through those mediums,” Vegas says.

Research has also told PERC that homeowners in propane country value their way of life, the land on which they live and their independence. To that end, campaign messaging will highlight how propane, as a surprisingly modern fuel, delivers energy when and where consumers need it and fuels their way of life. Those concepts are tied together under a new “Proudly Propane” banner.

“We thought about it in the context of the people who have been using propane for many years and the people who take pride in delivering it,” Vegas says of the banner. “We saw it as a rallying cry for both the marketer and consumer about the independent way of life that they can feel proud of.”

PERC foresees the campaign working in concert with new construction and housing data from Metrostudy, providing retailers with residential market insights about their service territory. The council also introduced this report at the Propane Expo.

“We’ve identified consumer segments with the highest likelihood to prefer gas appliances and occupy homes with heating types that could be replaced by propane,” says Bridget Kidd, director of residential and commercial programs for PERC. “We’ve also identified builders building away from pipelines.”

As project leaders have acknowledged, the media landscape has changed since the industry’s last major consumer education campaign, with a greater emphasis now on digital and social media applications.

Video will receive an estimated 60 percent of the media buy, project leaders say, supported by digital (22 percent), radio (9 percent) and print (9 percent) outlets. The Richards Group was looking at well-known television channels like Fox News, The Weather Channel, HGTV and CMT. Plus, Blue will appear this summer on the big screen in select AMC Theaters.

“Summertime tends to be big for blockbuster releases,” Walters says. “‘The Secret Life of Pets,’ a Disney film (scheduled for release in July), plays nicely into our campaign. It will allow us to put our work on the big screen in targeted areas.”
Facebook, with its multiple ad types to engage viewers, will serve as the primary social media channel for the campaign, project leaders say.

“There are more opportunities available to us, through paid and owned sources,” Walters says of digital media channels.

In addition, the campaign will include its own microsite, at Project leaders will be able to track the progress of the websites and ads, and make adjustments as needed, Walters adds.

Inside the numbers

Dennis Vegas, right, PERC’s chief marketing officer, was hired last year to help develop a consumer campaign.

Dennis Vegas, right, PERC’s chief marketing officer, was hired last year to help develop a consumer campaign. Photo: LP Gas Magazine

Before PERC faced the restriction, from August 2009 through April 2015, it enjoyed five years of a popular advertising campaign with the Energy Guys and the propane banner: Exceptional Energy.

Those efforts between the duo wearing white “Propane” and “Electricity” T-shirts to verbally spar with each other in television and radio advertisements, with propane always having the edge, helped to attract tens of thousands of new propane customers, the council says.

At that time, PERC was spending more than $20 million annually on consumer education initiatives. That more than doubles the funds approved at a February council meeting for the first year of what it envisions as a three-year campaign.

Still, the $10 million campaign, approved this year with the PERC assessment rate on odorized propane sales at four-tenths of a cent per gallon, is creating budgetary challenges for the council and the industry.

Willis spoke at PERC’s April meeting about tough decisions ahead for the council. Adding a consumer education campaign is forcing PERC to consider cuts to some programs, including Partnership with States. The current assessment rate of four-tenths, expected to generate about $36 million in 2016 revenue, was lowered from five-tenths after the restriction hit. The council has yet to decide whether the rate should remain at four-tenths beyond this year or increase to the maximum level.

“We have some tough choices to make and some prioritization we need to go through, not only here at the council, but also the states have to take a look at how their resources are being utilized,” Willis told the council, which will meet again in July to propose a 2017 budget.

Until then, PERC will have its hands full preparing the campaign’s rollout. One of those tasks includes rallying propane marketer and industry support for the program and preparing them to field inquiries from consumers wanting to know more about propane.

“This campaign can’t be effective unless we are fully aligned and integrated with the marketers in this industry,” Vegas says.

Tools for the marketer

PERC is already sending emails to the industry about the campaign. A planned marketer help desk via an 800 number will help marketers learn more about campaign material availability, when ads are running and how to take full advantage of the campaign. Marketers will be able to pick and choose the campaign tools to use in their areas.

According to an educational session at the Propane Expo, marketers will benefit from a number of marketing resources and tools connected to the campaign, including brand video, in-store signage, promotional items and giveaways, digital and social media copy, email marketing content, direct-mail postcards, newspaper and magazine ads, television and radio ads, billboards, posters and door hangers.

“The Blue campaign is to help you combat other energy sources operating in your territories,” says Paula Wilson of P3 Marketing Works, PERC’s former chairwoman, who’s offering her marketing expertise for the campaign. “We want to work with you to do your own personal branding and help you be an ambassador for your company, as well as this campaign. Everyone is going to have their own ideas, how they can incorporate this into their business.”

Wilson is one of many industry members who has contributed to the development and launch of the campaign.

Much of the industry’s work started in July 2015 when the council formed a consumer awareness task force to help lay the groundwork for a new campaign, naming Scott Brockelmeyer of Ferrellgas as the chairman. Brockelmeyer worked closely with The Richards Group as details of the campaign came together.

PERC’s process to form a new campaign hasn’t been without criticism. Some industry members believe the council has taken too much time after the restriction ended to launch a program. PERC, however, has defended that process, citing patience and a push to involve industry leaders in the effort.

“As much as we need to move quickly, we need to make sure we’re doing this the right way,” PERC Chairman Tom Van Buren of Ferrell North America told the council in February.

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at or 216-706-3748.

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