Oil Companies

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In 1911, the U.S. Army launched a cross-country motor caravan to demonstrate the potential of motor transportation and to spark interest in creating a national highway system. To a great extent, that event kicked off Americans' love affair with cars and road trips, and their subsequent need to buy petroleum products. By the end of the 1920s, more than 23 million cars were registered in the U.S. By the end of the next decade, 300,000 garages or retailers specialized in gasoline sales.

As service stations proliferated, distribution entities developed and began to use trademarks to assure brand identification. Through marketing, these trademarks—Texaco's Star, Shell's scallop shell, Sinclair's brontosaurus, Standard of Indiana's Red Crown—began to distinguish marketers' gasoline and oils for consumers.

Early advertising

In 1929, the artist McClelland Barclay created a series of posters that were used as print ads for Texaco. The series featured "beautiful people," wealthy, young sophisticates enjoying sports, travel and social outings alongside descriptions of Texaco's "Golden Motor Oil."

One of Texaco's most successful print campaigns from the 1930s, "All Nite Long, You're Always Welcome," showed a driver on a rainy night being greeted by a smiling, uniformed service station attendant. Pictured beneath a glowing Texaco star logo was a sign reading, "Registered rest room—a Texaco dealer service."

Phillips' early advertising capitalized on America's passion for the budding aviation industry. Charles Lindbergh's successful trans-Atlantic flight and a promotional flight from Oakland, Calif., to Honolulu piloted by a Hollywood stuntman were both powered by Phillips' aviation grade gasoline; subsequently, Phillips launched an aviation-oriented campaign, with posters and print ads that featured female aviators with the slogan "Phill-up and fly."

In 1939, clean rest rooms and travel assistance became the focus of an innovative marketing and advertising program that featured Phillips' "Highway Hostesses," registered nurses who literally cruised their territories helping motorists and inspecting rest rooms to make sure they were clean.

At the opening of World War II, the major oil companies were all handled by prominent agencies: Atlantic by N.W. Ayer & Son, Cities Service by Lord & Thomas, Gulf by Young & Rubicam, Pure (later merged into Union 76) by Leo Burnett Co., Shell by J. Walter Thompson Co., Standard by McCann-Erickson and Texaco by Newell-Emmett (later Cunningham & Walsh).

During the war, gasoline was rationed so product advertising was lean. Print, including a campaign by Phillips that depicted Boeing's Flying Fortress (running on Phillips fuel), demonstrated support of U.S. war efforts. Following World War II, demand was unleashed again. New investments were made in exploration and refining and, in 1948, imports of foreign oil exceeded exports for the first time.

Sponsored entertainment

The most innovative aspect of industry advertising at the time was the development of entertainment sponsorship, which had been launched for radio and was adapted by the budding TV broadcast industry.

In the early 1930s, Texaco sponsored "The Ed Wynn Show" on radio, in which the comedian's identity seemed to merge with that of the Texaco Fire Chief, a character named for Fire Chief gasoline. "The Texaco Star Theater" variety show was perhaps Texaco's best-known sponsorship; in 1940, it also began to sponsor live broadcasts from New York's Metropolitan Opera. (Texaco announced it would withdraw its support after the 2003-2004 season.) Shell, Pure Oil and Gulf were also active network advertisers, but in the 1930s no oil company was among the top 20 radio advertisers.

In 1948, Texaco—the only oil company at the time with locations in all 48 states—and agency Kudner Advertising moved the radio concept to TV, with Milton Berle as host. Sticking with the vaudeville format, Texaco's live broadcasts featured celebrities performing song, dance and comedy. In 1962, Texaco advertising focused around the jingle, "You Can Trust Your Car to the Man Who Wears the Star."

One of the most memorable oil brand images came from Esso-U.K.: the Esso "tiger." As it developed, the tiger took on the look of a cartoon superhero and the company's ad theme became "Put a tiger in your tank." In 1972, when Esso successor Exxon merged that brand with its Humble Oil brand (handled in the U.S. by McCann), the ad slogan referred to the tiger: "We're changing our name but not our stripes."

The late 1950s marked the beginning of the additive craze. Phillips and agency Lambert & Feasley, New York, launched a campaign designed to counter competing claims for additives with the new slogan, "It's performance that counts."

In the early 1960s, Ogilvy & Mather won the Shell account, which had been at JWT for 30 years. In a departure from earlier Shell advertising, Ogilvy created a new persona for Shell in the form of a lab-coat-wearing research chemist. In Ogilvy's ads, detailed chemical information was presented describing Shell's unique formulation.

A variety of demonstration-style TV spots followed, many depicting cars fueled by Shell—with "Platformate"—breaking through paper barriers that represented the limited mileage achieved by cars fueled with inferior products.

Market expansion

In 1953, Phillips began an aggressive initiative to put a retail outlet in every U.S. state, replacing its original orange-and-black shield emblem with a red-and-white version and introducing products such as "Trop-Artic" motor oil to appeal to diverse geographical markets.

In March 1965, Phillips ran an eight-page color insert—the first of its kind—in Life aimed at positioning the company as a global enterprise. While profitably serving a national market did not prove feasible (Phillips pulled out of several northeastern markets in 1972), the ad campaigns were very successful.

Standard Oil of Indiana positioned itself for expansion in 1960. In 1954, Standard—with a strong presence in 15 midwestern states—had purchased the regional American Oil Co. chain (in the northeastern and Gulf states), but the newly combined company was at a loss for a unified brand identity. In 1961, it launched "The Big Step" via D'Arcy Advertising Co., Chicago. The effort aimed to create a single brand identity for Standard as it expanded into new markets. While Standard and American Oil outlets continued to operate under their respective names in their own markets for several more years, they all sold "Amoco" branded gasoline. (Standard also established new outlets in West Coast states but, like Phillips, could not compete profitably nationwide.)

Prior to the "Big Step" campaign, a key aspect of the company's advertising focused on the consumer's perception of quality. The slogan, "You expect more from Standard. . .and you get it" (written by D'Arcy in 1954) was so successful it continued to be used even after the company changed its name ("You expect more from Amoco. . .and you get it").

Games and giveaways

In the late 1960s, industry advertising started to revolve around games, retail promotions and giveaways. Special promotions were pitched through mailings to credit card customers (credit cards had been introduced in the 1950s), tear-off coupons on products such as road maps and premium offers redeemable with fill-ups.

In 1972, DDB added the unsavory character of "Mr. Dirt" to Mobil advertising, reminding the audience of the only sure way to combat his mischief: "Dirt has an enemy. Mobil detergent gasoline."

Also in the early 1970s, games resurfaced, though strategy switched to image advertising in part as a reaction to the oil crisis. By 1974, with the oil crisis well under way, Exxon's ad expenditures had dropped almost 30% from 1972 levels, to $24 million, and the marketer switched its ad focus from product to image. Gasoline marketers practically eliminated product advertising, instead promoting conservation and the search for new oil sources. Mobil and Shell ads in 1974 featured location shots of drilling in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Phillips, Amoco and Shell aired spots on how to conserve gas.

In 1976, Shell Oil, through agency Ogilvy & Mather, Houston, developed a new advertising approach with its "Come to Shell for Answers" corporate image campaign, which used a nameless spokesperson to represent responsibility and helpfulness. During the course of the campaign, Ogilvy produced 32 "answer" booklets featuring helpful tips on auto maintenance and performance, which appeared as special inserts in national magazines.

In 1988, after 25 years of related campaigns (many using the "You can trust your car" theme), Texaco turned from selling service to creating a new image. Its "Star of the American Road" campaign appealed to younger consumers and sought to raise interest in Texaco's renovated convenience stores, called "StarMarts."

The Valdez crisis

In March 1989, the entire oil industry foundered after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker went aground near Prince William Sound, Alaska, creating an oil spill that caused unparalleled damage to the local environment and Exxon's image as well. Exxon's response included print ads that quoted Chairman L.J. Rawles' apology over the incident. While funds were diverted to restore local businesses, consumers believed Exxon did too little too late, and the oil company's market share had yet to return to preaccident levels by the turn of the century.

Advertising in the last half of the 1990s continued to embrace the industry's two dominant themes: establishing an image and creating distinctions unrelated to the product. Regional retailers such as Clark strongly promoted items sold through their convenience stores, while expedited payment systems, such as Mobil's "speed pass," remained another type of benefit commonly promoted in commercial spots.

In March 2000, Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, was named to handle advertising for the newly formed BP Amoco, which set out to remodel its U.S. Amoco stations to give them a unified look.

The U.S. gasoline and oil industry had total ad expenditures of $211 million in 2001, down 40.9% from 2000, in 11 media measured by Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. That level of spending placed the industry almost at the bottom of the 24 categories, at No. 23, the same rank as it had in 2000. While not insignificant, ad expenditures for the category in relation to sales remain low.

The industry quickly consolidated from the late 1990s into the early years of the new century. With the mergers came creative and media agency consolidations as well. Shell Oil Co. aligned globally with WPP's JWT, London; the agency's Houston office handles the U.S.

ConocoPhillips tapped IPG's Dailey & Associates, Los Angeles, the incumbent on Phillips, for its gas station account. Dailey handled a spring 2004 campaign for the marketer’s new gas detergent that used the same executions for each of its brands—Conoco, Phillips and 76. "Life happens between empty and full" was the new tag.

Record high gas prices in early 2004 helped boost earnings for many players.

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