Bust & Boom, Part II (The Oil Companies)

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So the US domestic car business is picking up this year. No, it’s flying high, so much so that manufacturers are worried that they won’t be able to keep up with demand. I wrote earlier this week about how familiar this is…business is up, workers are rehired, marketers go about selling cars just like they’ve always sold them…until the economy changes, sales crash, employees are fired, and the cycle repeats.

There’s got to be a better way, right? I can’t imagine that the car brands make enough money in the “good” years to warrant all the suffering in the “bad” ones. A core tenet of any successful brand strategy is to figure out how to make your brand as immune to the the vicissitudes of Fate as possible. Yet there’s nothing coming from the car companies to suggest they know this fact, or are able to apply it to their marketing. Some of the campaigns are funny and a few are really good but it’s otherwise business as usual.

Until the bottom falls out, and then it’s crisis time for a bit.

As I came up with a few ideas for the car companies to consider (not holding my breath, though), it occurred to me that the oil companies have a huge stake in this game. They kinda own it, what with the price of gas at the pump being one of the biggest deciding factors in the success or failure not just of the car business but business overall. It’s weird that nobody can explain to me in plain English why gas prices go up or down; it’s always kinda fuzzy, but I think the most important fact to understand is that they’re going to go up when it’s least convenient for people, and down when they couldn’t care less. So I’m willing to consign that lever to forces outside anybody’s control (except the folks who are and will continue to make huge profits from it).

I wonder if there are things oil marketers could do to make us somewhat forgive them of that fact, or even overlook it? It might give them the impetus to improve the stuff overall.

Can you name an oil company ad that mattered to you? I can’t, though the only stuff I can even remember was the “beyond petroleum” garbage BP propagated into the cosmos until the Gulf Oil Spill reminded us that it was anything BUT beyond the stuff. The most the energy brands do is try to convince us that they care about alternative energy (which they don’t, and shouldn’t have to) and that their products are part of some imaginary ‘balanced energy future’ (which is also untrue since oil is the future for many decades to come, at least).

Perhaps the oil companies have a vested interest in helping mitigate the wild gyrations in usage that result from their wild gyrations of price? Here are a few thought-starter ideas:

  • Acknowledge the price thing. It’s like the 800 lb. gorilla in the room and oil company marketing ignores it, leaving the local gas stations to endure the brunt of the bad news (and they also have little to nothing to say about it). Imagine if any other product company never mentioned that its price would go up or down sometimes many times a day, with no apparent connection to perceivable circumstances? We’d never give them a dime of our money yet we dutifully show up at the station every time our fuel gauges read something close to empty. Some communication that simply acknowledged this fact, or made an honest attempt at explaining it to us, might really go a long way toward establishing better trusting relationships. Oil companies could build products for it, too, like a hedge tool to let people protect the price they’ll pay, or allow people to trade them (like a futures market, only for drivers).
  • Create loyalty programs for frequent users. Duh. Why do people pay different prices for airline tickets, car rental, and a host of other products and services, but we all pay the same price for a gallon of gas when fueling at the same station? Why couldn’t a gas brand incentivize repeat purchase with a user discount over time? Such a program would also allow the brand to build in other promotions and benefits.
  • Coordinate with car companies to encourage fuel economy. This is the idea that would be hardest for the oil companies to grasp: If you help people use less gas, they’ll end up using more of it. But it’s true. Just think light beer or low-tar cigarettes. If folks got a benefit on the cost of gas for buying a hybrid or high-efficiency combustion engine vehicle, I bet they’d drive them more. They’d certainly feel better about it, which would likely translate into affection for the energy and car brands.

It’s just weird that with all of the price and war rumors going on, we hear nothing relevant from the oil companies. And then they wonder why nobody trusts them.

Original Post: http://www.dimbulb.net/my_weblog/2012/03/bust-boom-part-ii-the-oil-companies.html