Blue the dog has returned to the airwaves as the centerpiece of propane’s multimillion-dollar national consumer education campaign, scratching and clawing for attention despite new challenges and considerations.
Funded through the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), the multimedia campaign that features Blue on a host of industry marketing materials earned high marks for improving consumers’ perceptions of propane following its $10 million launch last year.
But as the campaign moves into its second year at $8.2 million, PERC is proceeding carefully as it faces key decisions associated with its budget, propane marketer buy-in of the campaign, timing, and potential impacts from being off the air for five straight months.
The propane industry, in fact, had been off the air for more than six years due to a federal government restriction on its consumer outreach activities before last year’s return to the end-user market. The marketing world continued to evolve during that downtime for the industry.
“We must break through that clutter and position our brand the way we want it to be, rather than let people define it,” says Dennis Vegas, chief marketing officer at PERC, noting the thousands of marketing messages that consumers encounter daily on myriad devices.
With an advertising agency (The Richards Group) and marketing head (Vegas) established before last year’s launch, PERC has assembled pieces of a program designed to improve consumers’ familiarity and favorability of propane and create a willingness among them to consider propane for residential purposes.
A need for change
PERC discovered less-than-desirable results from a pre-campaign Nielsen survey about homeowners’ perceptions of propane. Notably, only 48 percent of nonusers were familiar with propane and 26 percent were favorable to it. So the council’s goal with the campaign in its first year was to boost those numbers.
Key advertising messages in 2016 ran nationally on select television channels and in movie theaters for three months last summer. PERC relied on its survey data to measure the campaign’s impact after the first year.
At its February meeting in Dallas, PERC reported positive results from a follow-up survey measuring consumers’ perceptions of propane. The survey found 22 percent of more than 2,000 homeowners recalled seeing at least one of the campaign’s commercials on television, online or in a movie theater over the previous 12 months. Among those who recalled seeing the ads, Nielsen concluded, the campaign generated more favorable perceptions of propane since the previous study. This included a jump in favorability of 13 percentage points among homeowners who saw the Blue ads in 2016.
A quarter of all respondents in the survey recalled seeing a propane ad of any kind over the previous 12 months, with television being the most common media channel. Print and radio advertisements also influenced favorability, the survey found.
“What we learned is for maximum impact the use of multiple channels simultaneously is what we want to continue if we have the resources,” Vegas says. “If people are looking at one channel to yield the biggest return, that’s probably not the best approach.”
Television, at 40 percent, will still receive the bulk of the media investment again this year. Of the $6.5 million buy, $5 million is earmarked for television commercials this spring, as well as for digital (30 percent), radio (15 percent) and print (15 percent) advertising.
PERC is reusing two commercials from last year featuring Blue the dog and his owner, a propane delivery driver. The spots share Blue’s thoughts about living free and independently and fueling applications inside and outside the home with propane.
National “air cover” kicked off Feb. 26 with a television commercial on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Spots on other well-known home, news and sports channels are also planned.
“Television is still what customers remember, and it helps to set up those other platforms for success,” says Gregg Walker, director of communications at PERC. “When you use them all together, they perform better.”
PERC will supplement the television spots in year two with digital videos to build propane’s brand and the campaign’s connection with consumers, Walker says. Space heating, water heating and outdoor living are priority areas of the campaign as it looks to reinforce a promotional focus on appliances.
Blue will continue to have a strong presence on Facebook, where PERC will make its biggest digital advertising investment with the campaign in the spring, knowing the site’s popularity among consumers.
“When we think about how we designed this campaign, we are pleased to see that sort of engagement rate (above industry averages) on Facebook, but mostly we’re after views of those videos,” says Todd Unruh, digital strategy director at The Richards Group, during the February meeting. “We want people to watch and spend time; that’s what’s going to move our brand metric.”
Part of the discussion
But as the campaign returned to the airwaves, five straight months had passed since Blue’s last appearance on television or the movie screen.
Council leaders have expressed their concern about the potential for lost momentum following the “dark” period and are measuring that impact to support future decisions. Nielsen also concluded in its latest survey that some of the improvements in perceptions will recede the longer the consumer education campaign is off the air.
Discussions at PERC’s February meeting also centered on timing. Some council members wondered whether the campaign’s main advertising messages would make a greater impact in the fall, prior to the home heating season, than in the spring. Currently, the campaign is front-loaded with the $5 million allocated for spring advertising (through May) and $1.5 million tabbed for fall digital, radio and print initiatives.
“The spring might create more opportunities for marketers when they’re out of the busy delivery season,” Walker says, noting how PERC’s market outreach and training working group encouraged the council to think beyond home heating. “If the industry continues to put all of its eggs in the home-heating basket, it might squander opportunities to talk to homeowners about non-weather dependent applications and outdoor living.”
That the timing became such a discussion is due in part to PERC’s efforts to make the greatest impact with its available dollars. Mild weather last October, November and December led to less-than-expected assessment collections and about $2.5 million under budget expectations. As a result, PERC has been forced to eliminate or change the scope of some other projects this year.
As PERC prepared to roll out the campaign last year, PERC President and CEO Roy Willis cautioned the council about budgetary challenges it could face in the months ahead. Budgetary issues were broached again during the February meeting, even after the council had raised the assessment rate to four-and-a-half-tenths of a cent per gallon last November.
“This is to ensure PERC operates with a balanced budget,” Willis says of the project changes. “It’s across the board trying to preserve all safety and training, research and development, commercialization, and consumer campaigns at a sufficient level without running a deficit and without having to borrow money from future years to do things today. It is about fiscal responsibility.”
Connecting with marketers
Engaging marketers with the campaign and creating tools for them and their states to grow the safe, efficient use of propane is an ongoing goal and challenge for council leaders.
PERC makes free campaign materials, including print and digital ads and other collateral such as bill stuffers, posters, postcards and door hangers, available at propanecouncil.org. There’s even a “Meet Blue” radio commercial.
“Our work is never done,” Vegas says. “We need to be vigilant and consistent in reaching out to [marketers] so they are fully aware of how they can use their assessment dollars.”
PERC surveyed more than 300 marketers throughout the country about the campaign. It reported generally favorable responses related to marketer familiarity of the Blue initiative and their feelings about the canine’s ability to improve consumer perceptions of propane. But it also came away with some areas in which to improve. For instance, some marketers believe PERC should do a better job of explaining objectives of the campaign, Walker says.
“We need to create more tools for marketers,” Vegas adds. “Last year we created a plethora of resources, and many marketers took advantage of it, but state leaders asked for additional things, like billboards they can use in their respective markets to tout their businesses and show an alignment with the national brand campaign. Others asked for resources to market inside their facilities to show collaboration.”
Also at its February meeting, PERC discussed marketer expectations and roles connected to the national campaign. Council leaders generally agreed that the consumer campaign alone would not lead directly to increased gallon and appliance sales. Rather, marketers must play their own roles in closing sales opportunities.
The national campaign “is the air cover and propane marketers, as they promote their companies, are the troops on the ground,” Walker says. “We’re making customers more receptive to propane company messages, but propane companies need to be promoting their products and services. They’re going to find more receptive consumers because of those commercials.”
Councilor Gene Bissell added during the discussion, “We have to communicate that to the marketers. We’re going to increase the effectiveness of what you do, but if you don’t do anything differently, there’s not going to be a change here.”
Palmer Gas & Oil is taking campaign marketing materials to the front lines. With its push toward propane autogas, the New Hampshire marketer incorporated Blue on the windows of its fuel sales rep’s 2014 propane-fueled Ford Fusion. A company designer used a PERC image of Blue to create the wrap, which also shows a fuel hose connecting a 20-pound cylinder to the vehicle’s fuel tank.
Amanda Bacon, director of sales and marketing at Palmer Gas & Oil, says the images combine the “fun and different” of Blue with a technology angle designed to get people thinking about propane’s role as a motor fuel.
To help strengthen the campaign’s ties with marketers, PERC also hired Paula Wilson as its director of industry engagement. Wilson has an extensive marketing background, most notably as the former marketing director at AmeriGas. She also has served as PERC’s chairwoman.