MOBIL PUMPS UP IMAGE FOR FRIENDLIER SERVICE

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The Bloomingdale's of gas stations.

Mobil Corp. is now testing a strategy to woo upscale, service-hungry consumers, and the effort could be the marketer's ticket to differentiating its brand. The strategy, dubbed Friendly Serve, will tout product quality and superior service while refraining from hyping price.

The company seems to be on the right track with the new approach, said William Sinnott, president of Ryan Partnership's Field Marketing Division, Westport, Conn. But he noted that discounter Wal-Mart Stores is the largest, most profitable retailer, not Bloomingdale's.

"There is a danger of possibly overpositioning the stations too upmarket," Mr. Sinnott said.

Mobil's new marketing concept, now being tested in Orlando, has reportedly raised revenue as much as 25% in test stations, and Mobil says that as many as 85% of its 8,000 dealers will participate in a national rollout.

In Orlando, Mobil is currently running two 30-second spots, print and radio for the Friendly Serve test, created by DDB Needham Worldwide, New York. The Friendly Serve program also fits hand in hand with the national ad campaign theme, "How can we help you?"

If the test proves that this marketing strategy is economically feasible, Mobil expects to roll the program out nationally by 1996, said a Mobil spokeswoman.

Mobil's strategy is based on research involving 2,000 motorists, showing only 20% of consumers shop a gas station strictly on price.

Most oil industry experts and trend spotters agree with Mobil's evaluation of today's consumer. They believe this new strategy could help differentiate the No. 3 gasoline maker in a commodities market with little distinction between brands.

"Mobil is on the money," said Barbara Caplan, senior VP-director of client services for Roper Starch Worldwide, New York. Although Roper does not survey gas station consumers specifically, "we do know that people are disgusted with service in general."

According to oil marketing newsletter the Lundberg Letter, people do care about courtesy at the pump. Of 177 consumers the publication interviewed, 63% said they've decided not to do business at a gas station because employees were rude or inconsiderate.

"It is hard to seek a way to distinguish oneself in today's environment with the fierce competition and variety of stations that exist out there," said Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the Lundberg Letter, North Hollywood, Calif.

Competition in the 116 billion-gallon gasoline category is very close. Shell Oil Co. owns 7.32% of the market, Amoco Oil Co., 7.29% and Mobil, 6.78%, according to the Lundberg Letter.

Larry Moore, VP and oil specialist for Houston market researcher NPD Group, said Shell, Amoco and Exxon are showing signs of trying to upgrade service.

Shell and Texaco said that they are always looking at ways to improve customer service but would not disclose if they had any plans to put together an extensive marketing plan like Mobil's.

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