The new face of propane

March 1, 2004 By    

For those of you who find it difficult to introduce a colorless gas to potential customers, a new set of television commercials launched in recent weeks is designed to do it for you.

The Energy Guys are the focus of an upbeat, humorous education and marketing campaign that demonstrates the differences between propane and electricity.
The Energy Guys are the focus of an upbeat, humorous education and marketing campaign that demonstrates the differences between propane and electricity.

America, meet Propane. He’s confident, reliable and efficient. He’s competent and likable. When he’s brought in to replace Electricity, who’s a little quirky, he breaks the news gently but firmly. He knows what the homeowners prefer, and he delivers, whether it’s dinner simmering on the stove or hot water for their showers.

He’s the star of the newest phase of the Propane Education & Research Council’s consumer education campaign, which includes 22 weeks of national and local advertising for television, magazines and radio.

The commercials feature personified versions of propane, electricity and wood, each with characteristics that correlate to the industry’s view of the energy world and are bound to draw a smile.

The “Energy Guys” commercials take a different turn from the “warm and fuzzy” spots of recent years, which all radiated security and contentment with crackling fires, babies, warm baths and snug homes. Instead, these are more direct, humorously conveying the strength and confidence of propane over the shortcomings of electricity.

“These ads tell the propane story in a humorous, comparative way – a more aggressive way than we have told the story previously, but we certainly feel that’s very important because it’s a critical year for the campaign. We must invite consumers in an aggressive manner to take a new and different look at propane,” says Kate Caskin, PERC’s vice president of communications.

“We need to go from the numbers that we’ve seen in terms of increasing consumer awareness of propane, to increasing their favorability of the product, to getting to that changed behavior and actually having consumers make the conscious decision to pick up the phone or go to the website and use propane. It’s a critical junction.”

Building Momentum

In its fourth year, the campaign has ramped up to $26 million, up from $17 million spent in 2003.

Spending that much money is crucial to reach every consumer, according to PERC and Porter Novelli, the advertising agency it hired to advise the campaign. Media buys (air time in national and local markets, national magazine spots, online ads) are expensive, as are the creative steps to put them together. Of the $26 million budget, $17.5 million will be spent on advertising. The rest goes to public relations, media outreach, industry communications, sales materials, and a measurement and evaluation component.

Air time in local markets will be particularly expensive and hard to come by this fall as national and local elections draw closer and political candidates snatch up chunks of time, notes Andy Ferrin of Porter Novelli. It is the first year the campaign has coincided with a presidential election.

“Plain and simple, there won’t be a lot of spots to buy in September and October in most local markets around the country,” he says. “They will be prohibitively expensive or just plain not available.”

To save money, the firm has purchased what is called “direct response TV” – time spots within a time frame in which home buying, renovating or building is featured, but whose specific times are chosen by the network. Buying windows of time like this is sometimes half the price of regular fixed programming, Ferrin says.

The 2004 Campaign

The campaign base remains with select national cable networks: Home & Garden Television (HGTV), Country Music Television (CMT) and the Weather Channel, all of which were strategically selected for the demographics they attract.

HGTV draws viewers who are interested in improving their current home or are thinking about their next home, Ferrin says. CMT has a primarily rural audience, who offer the best prospects for propane use and new home construction in those areas. The Weather Channel links viewers to grilling and temperature themes.

Print versions of the ads will appear in national print magazines with a home building and home remodeling emphasis. The campaign has expanded its presence in magazines that represent rural passions, such as “Outdoor Life” and “Field and Stream,” and “American Profile,” a Sunday newspaper magazine supplement that runs in many rural counties. Ads will again run in log home publications, magazines featuring home plans, and popular national lifestyle magazines like “Midwest Living” and “Southern Living.”

“That’s really the two parts of the advertising equation – what’s your message and what context is it delivered in, is it delivered to the right people,” Ferrin explains. “Having the propane brand associated with those brands is definitely a positive.”

In response to industry requests, the campaign has added a line of shorter versions of the TV commercials to give companies time to add their own information. Three 15-second TV spots featuring the Energy Guys offer propane companies the chance to add 15 seconds of specific contact information, or promote rebates or products. Shortened versions will be available for radio as well, with a compatible piece for print ads and point-of-purchase materials.

While the commercials are initially introduced nationally, they will also appear on local network television stations in the 27 local markets PERC entered last fall. PERC hopes to announce by April 2 another set of cities in which it will buy air time for the commercials later this year.

Geared to appeal to viewers ages 25 to 54, the commercials will appear most often in local markets in the morning on weekends. In 2002, the campaign targeted 35- to 64-year-olds and linked the ads to news programs.

To capitalize on the national campaign, PERC also has increased the budget for its Partnership Program with States. This year, $3 million is to be divided among states that spend their money to place PERC-produced ads in their markets.

Creating the Concept

The Energy Guys grew out of the creative teamwork at Porter Novelli, which used focus groups to test a number of different concepts. The “Energy Guys” concept quickly rose to the top, Ferrin says.

Focus groups helped the firm determine that, after the “warm and fuzzy” approach of the last several years, the more effective approach now was to directly compare each energy source – without being disparaging.

“We didn’t want to beat up on electricity,” says Ferrin. “If you have the characters sell too hard, I think consumers tune out if they perceive an unbalanced playing field.”

Casting companies in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago sent tapes of 982 actors who were reviewed before the roles were cast. In casting Propane, the right actor needed to radiate confidence, reliability and efficiency.

“Electricity needed to be the annoying little brother to Propane,” Ferrin says. “He’s still likable, but a little annoying. Not quite as confident, not quite as efficient, not as reliable – because we know that Propane is exceptional.”

In the commercials, Electricity likes to play tricks on the unseen homeowners, such as suddenly turning a hot shower to cold. Each wears a white T-shirt with black lettering; Propane sports the bold font of the ad campaign, while Electricity’s is a sterile dot-matrix. Propane appears at ease in the house, and Electricity is a bit nervous.

Each commercial and print ad ends by directing viewers and readers to the redesigned consumer Web site ( and the Propane Marketer Locator tool to find a retailer in their area (see story on page 27).

The ads seem to be capturing the attention of potential customers. According to PERC’s research, the number of hits on the Web site jumps when the ads were running on TV and radio – and more than doubled in the months that followed the launch of the Propane Marketer Locator.

Great Debate

With slim profit margins and hefty financial concerns of their own, the retailers who comprise the council swallowed hard last fall when confronted with a request to turn over half of PERC’s $51.5 million budget for advertising. Meetings were filled with discussion over whether it is appropriate and necessary to spend that much money on something the industry didn’t even have five years ago.

Feeling a strong need to prove to their industry brethren that the expenditure is paying off, councilors voted to spend another $1 million for an in-depth “Market Metrics” study to delineate the connection between the advertising campaign and propane sales. The two-year study by Wirthlin Worldwide will measure who is using propane, how much they are using, and for what purpose.

“Only by using the detailed metrics that literally get to the appliances being used in the household will we be able to pinpoint what about our consumer education campaign is adding new business,” says Roy Willis, PERC’s president. “The industry is right to ask the question, what is the rate of return on this investment? We know we have a competitive rate of return.”

For every dollar spent by the campaign, he says, the industry gets between three and four dollars net return on sales – which, he says, is right on target.

“Unlike other commodities, we have the added benefit of having retained that customer over more years than other commodities like chicken or pork, because of the investment the customer makes in equipment,” he adds.

There’s no doubt the endeavor, outlined from the beginning as a five-year plan, is expensive. But as every retailer knows, it takes money to make money. Caskin says most retailers understand that advertising is necessary to increase long-term sales by 2005.

“After that is explained, it’s certainly understood by the industry that there’s a process and a plan in place to carry out the strategy over a period of years,” she says. “After that understanding of where we’re headed, the vast majority of propane retailers are on board with the campaign.”

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