Petro Refuels Satisfaction for Workers, Customers

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Business at Petro Home Heating Oil was cooling down in the past two years.


The nation's largest home oil company faced high customer churn and low satisfaction. Employee morale was low, and brand differentiation versus the competition was weak.


"The crisis was important enough to Petro that they created a senior-level position in the organization to bring the voice of the customer into the company -- the chief marketing officer," said David Shinnebarger, who holds that position at Petro and its parent, Star Gas Partners, Stamford, CT.


Many of these issues resulted from purchases and consolidations that made Petro No. 1 in its business. Acquisitions required operational changes, particularly a migration to centralized billing and call center systems. Customer service suffered.


The situation was not helped by high turnover within senior management. This hurt morale as employees witnessed a rise in tank runouts and customer defections even as they put in 18-hour days.


Petro restructured its leadership team and fixed the billing and call center systems. But there was the need to position the company in line with its leadership status.


That's when o2kl: Owens Kopilak Klein Lurie stepped in. The New York agency, a startup of four senior ad agency veterans, developed a direct marketing plan to stop the net loss of customers and turn the business around in Petro's Northeast region of operation.


Phase one of the plan, begun in early August, was to relaunch Petro to its own employees. The campaign was called "The Giant Awakes." The idea was twofold. It reminded employees of Petro's size and strength in an industry full of small, local players. It also gained their confidence and established credibility by admitting previous management errors while looking to the opportunities ahead.


The effort used a series of marketing pieces telling Petro staff about changes made in the company and the rationale.


A key tactic was the employee referral program. Employees get $150 for every new customer brought in. Paycheck inserts pushed the program. Direct mail went to employee households, informing them of changes under way.


O2kl also created break room posters to serve as campaign teasers with mission and vision statements. Laminated tracking sheets gauged success on customer satisfaction, service improvement and referral program results. And employees got a business card with their names on them.


"For most of the drivers and technicians, it's the first business card they've ever had," said Tracey Owens, president of o2kl and former CEO of MRM Partners' New York office.


Creative for "The Giant Awakes" made clever use of copy and visuals of the navy blue and gold Petro oil tanker. Consider the headline of the merchandiser brochure: "This fall, Petro customers can sleep well." The headline on the reverse continued, "But our new ad campaign will have the competition tossing and turning."


The next phase was the consumer launch. The campaign was named "Sleep Well." This effort communicates the certainty, comfort and peace of mind that come with using the industry's leading home heating oil provider. Yet it is not so specific to heating oil that it precludes Petro from extending into other home services.


Also promoted is Price Lock, Petro's new rate protection plan designed to reassure consumers in an era of fluctuating oil prices. The company guaranteed consumers a fixed rate against the rising price of oil.


Owens and her partners, creative directors Danny Klein and Jon Kopilak and general manager Jim Lurie, devised a mnemonic for the marketing: "1 Rate. 12 Months. 0 Surprises." A $50 gift card from home furnishings chain Lowe's was thrown in for switching to Petro.


Media vehicles include outdoor, commuter rail posters, print, direct mail, Val-Pak inserts, coffee sleeves, moving guide inserts, movie theater slides, door hangers and three direct response spots of 30 seconds each. A telemarketing push with training and scripting is already generating sales.


Headlines in the ads use minimal copy and a single visual to stress Petro's benefits. The billboard ad reads, "Freeze your oil bill this winter." One of the print ad says, "Who else answers your Sunday night emergency with a real person? Switch to Petro for 24/7 peace of mind." Another print ad picturing a thermostat is headlined, "Set your oil bill at a comfortable level all winter long." The theater headline reads, "Drama: Good for movies. Bad for oil bills."


The Petro acquisition postcard hits home as well. It shows a red switch panel. The "on" side has the words "Price lock." The "off" side says, "Price spikes." The headline reads, "Protect yourself from rising oil prices with a simple switch."


Toll-free numbers are listed in all ads, which are produced in the Petro corporate colors. The campaign ends in December.


"For consumers we needed to develop a truly big idea," Klein said, "something broad enough to act as a brand platform for the next three to five years as [Petro] transitions into a wide array of home services -- such as security systems -- and yet focused enough to immediately support the most ambitious customer acquisition drive in their 100-year history."


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