Use marketing as a competitive advantage

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

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

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

The pandemic took a toll on those who used propane at home and at work – lifestyles and habits reversed as many families stayed home during traditional work and work hours.

The pandemic has also put more pressure on essential workers in industry, who are nonetheless immune to the virus. A single case of COVID-19 could shut down a customer service center and impact the lives of drivers, technicians and end users. This added uncertainty to a business that was already operating with scarce resources.

This dangerous dynamic has accelerated the need to relay accurate delivery and repair information to customers on an hour-by-hour basis. Companies that have increased their commitment to two-way customer communication have built strong brand loyalty and trust with customers.

Propane’s warm welcome

During the pandemic, propane served as an essential whole-home energy source.

Millions of customers have been hunkered down at home, spending hours on the internet – working, gaming, watching the news or keeping in touch with family during uncertain times.

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

Some customers took advantage of the downtime to report propane marketers on social media about service issues. A woman posted photos on Facebook of herself shoveling around a propane tank she wanted removed from her property when the marketer did not have the staff to meet the demand.

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

Traditionally, when profits fall, company executives slash already lean marketing budgets. Maybe the mindset was, “Customers need fuel – let them find us.” For companies looking for growth, this is a dead end approach.

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

Bittersweet Crossroads

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

Businesses can no longer afford to leave marketing communications on the sidelines at the executive table. Blueox Energy Products & Services revealed that since the pandemic, 30% of its customers are now ordering, paying and tracking propane deliveries over the internet. This Amazon-like ordering process eliminates customer service representatives, paper invoices, and customer account functions.

Marketers will be hard pressed 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 new marketing prospects for growth-oriented propane businesses is determining the cost of acquiring and retaining customers.

Letting customers go warrants a cost-benefit analysis. Customer service centers must have the power to accelerate customer happiness and success – or run the risk of customer attrition and complaining to close friends on social media and media. Don’t think that legislators and elected officials don’t pay attention to pocketbook issues like household fuel.

Reimagining marketing and advertising for the post-COVID era will need to involve leadership comfortable with increased risk and creativity. This means investing in a strategy of new content delivered across social, web and mobile platforms, as well as ad buys that meet customers where they now spend the most time.

Leaders who spend most of their time with spreadsheets and income statements will now be forced to think and act more creatively. Some will adopt this activity internally and others will be forced to create relationships with suppliers.

No fade marks

Savvy marketers have already realized that presenting propane as a commodity does not align with the end user’s view of the fuel as a necessity.

A propane distributor recently used a new ad campaign to address a surge in new and second home sales. Wisely, he repositioned his brand to appeal to customers looking for a single main fuel for the whole house.

A fuel-focused 30-second spot for the high-end whole house; a second spot featured a satisfied customer with a newly installed grill; and the third featured vehicles driving to customers for round-the-clock service.

The personalized content was deployed on three cable systems in its service area. The spots aired on local news channels and The Weather Channel. Content was delivered to wired routers in desired zip codes and played ahead of viewer-selected video on high-traffic websites.

The “secret” sauce

Marketers have traditionally operated with minimal resources to achieve maximum returns. Locations, personnel, equipment, supply, billing and accounting are no longer the only data to monitor. Evaluating online analytics, delivering new content, and optimizing for keywords are now essential marketing requirements.

The path to profit growth in a propane business requires a healthy mix of digital marketing and more traditional options, including radio, television, print, direct mail, out-of-home, and online options. Other low-cost, high-visibility opportunities include deploying teams to support local and national nonprofits.

Building momentum now will be a challenge, but one that some growth-oriented companies will rise to. Propane companies have to come to terms with the idea that their brand should have more depth than a roadside billboard. Brands need to be active to keep customers warm, safe and happy. Don’t let customer frustration spill over and cause other customers to seek out new suppliers. Staying hungry is a great growth strategy for the post-COVID social market.

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