Use marketing as a competitive advantage

May 5, 2022 By    

Propane marketers are emerging from months of COVID-19 challenges to a new reality of marketing and advertising to home and commercial customers.

Some marketers will spend months catching up to pre-pandemic operational growth, while others will seize the moment to launch new marketing and advertising methods to cream the competition.

Prior to COVID-19, marketers could plan and place marketing and advertising campaigns months in advance based on decades of fuel buying and usage patterns.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on those using propane for home and business – lifestyles and habits turned inside out when many families stayed home during traditional work and business hours.

The pandemic also put more pressure on the industry’s essential workers, who are not any less immune to the virus. Just one case of COVID-19 could shut down a customer service center and impact the lives of drivers, techs and end users. It added uncertainty to a business that already operated on scarce resources.

This dangerous dynamic accelerated the need to convey accurate information about deliveries and repairs to customers on an hour-by-hour basis. Companies that upped their commitment to two-way customer communication built strong brand loyalty and confidence with customers.

Propane’s warm welcome

During the pandemic, propane served as an essential energy source for the entire home.

Millions of customers hunkered down at home, spending hours on the internet – working, playing, watching the news or staying connected to family during uncertain times.

The pandemic caused a gigantic shift in work-life-leisure balance. Many of us spent so much time on smartphones and computers that our daily habits changed, further fragmenting where and how to target those making fuel-purchasing decisions.

Some customers used the idle time to bash propane marketers on social media over service issues. One woman posted photos on Facebook of her shoveling around a propane tank she wanted removed from her property when the marketer did not have the staff to meet the request.

This new landscape means propane marketers can’t have a “set it and forget it” mindset when it comes to marketing, communication and advertising strategy. A growth mindset with real-time customer engagement is a reality propane marketers can’t ignore.

Traditionally, when profits drop, company executives cut already-thin marketing budgets. Perhaps the mindset was: “Customers need the fuel – let them find us.” For companies seeking growth, that is a dead-end approach.

Customers want information, and they want it now. Don’t wait to be on the cutting edge of communication technology, or tech-savvy customers will find vendors who keep close contact via email, text, apps or online portal.

Bittersweet intersection

April 2022 brings the energy industry to a bittersweet intersection: The COVID cloud is in the rearview mirror; looking forward, the cost of fuel, equipment and tanks will slow growth. Doing business the same way as in the past could prove to be more costly.

Companies can no longer afford to have marketing communications take a back seat at the leadership table. Blueox Energy Products & Services revealed that since the pandemic 30 percent of its customers now order, pay and track propane deliveries on the internet. This Amazon-type ordering process eliminates customer service representatives, paper invoices and account receivable functions.

Marketers will struggle to grow gallons or turn up the heat on competitors without preparing a new way to approach strategic marketing communications with web-savvy customers.

Key ingredients

A key ingredient in the growth-focused propane companies’ new marketing outlook is determining the cost of customer acquisition and retention.

Letting customers leave warrants a cost-benefit analysis. Customer service centers must be given the power to expedite customer happiness and success – or run the risk of customer attrition and complaining to close friends on social media and news outlets. Don’t think lawmakers and elected officials aren’t paying attention to pocketbook issues like home fuel.

Reimagining marketing and advertising for the post-COVID era will have to involve leadership comfortable with increasing risk and creativity. This means investing in a strategy for fresh content served on social, web and mobile platforms as well as advertising buys that meet customers where they now spend the most time.

Executives who spend most of their time with spreadsheets and P&L statements now will be forced to think and act more creatively. Some will embrace this activity in-house and others will be forced to create vendor relationships.

No bland brands

Savvy marketers have already figured out that portraying propane as a commodity does not connect with the end-user’s view of the fuel as a necessity.

A propane marketer recently used a fresh advertising campaign to address an increase in new and second-home sales. Wisely, he repositioned his brand to appeal to customers seeking one main fuel for the entire home.

One 30-second spot focused on fuel for the entire high-end home; a second spot featured a happy customer with a newly installed grill; and the third showcased vehicles traveling to customers for around-the-clock service.

The custom content was deployed on three cable systems in his service area. The spots ran on local news channels and The Weather Channel. The content was fed to cable routers in desired zip codes and ran before viewer-selected video on high-traffic websites.

The ‘secret’ sauce

Marketers have traditionally operated with minimal resources to hit maximum returns. Locations, staff, equipment, supply, billing and accounting are no longer the only data that needs to be monitored. Evaluating online analytics, serving fresh content and optimizing keywords are now mission-critical marketing requirements.

The path to growing profit in a propane business requires a healthy blend of digital marketing along with more traditional options, including radio, TV, print, direct mail, out-of-home and online options. Other low-cost, high-visibility opportunities include deploying teams to support local and national nonprofit organizations.

Building momentum now will be a challenge but one that some growth-focused companies will savor. Propane companies must embrace the idea that their brand must have more depth than a highway billboard. Brands must be active to keep customers warm, safe and happy. Don’t let customer frustration boil over and cause other customers to seek new providers. Staying hungry is a great growth strategy for the social, post-COVID marketplace.

Roger Rosenbaum is the founder and president of Brand-News-Team, a strategic marketing communications firm that delivers growth-focused campaigns for local and national energy companies. The company specializes in PR, marketing, content and community events. Rosenbaum is an Emmy-nominated journalist.

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