Newer engines thwart marketers: Change the oil? Not yet, thanks

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The long-held rule on changing motor oil every 3,000 miles or three months is already out of date thanks to better car engines. So what's a motor-oil marketer to do, especially since three of the segment leaders are also tied to quick-change oil stores?

They are chasing owners of old cars, segmenting the market based on what each customer drives and targeting new advertising to those segments.

In Europe, carmakers' specifications already call for oil changes every 5,000 to 10,000 miles. It's just a matter of time before the intervals are extended further in the U.S. One executive close to the industry estimated it could take a few years, when carmakers are expected to release their next round of specifications for motor oil.

"We are keeping an eye on it because we don't want any surprises," said Tami Talbert, global strategy manager of Royal Dutch-Shell Group's Pennzoil and Quaker State brands. Owner manuals for new cars and trucks now call for oil to be changed closer to every 5,000 miles on average, she said.

Rolf Linder, VP-marketing of Ashland's Valvoline Co., said the marketer tends to recommend changes at 3,000 miles or every three months. But he said with certain engines and certain Valvoline premium oil, "you could run the product for a year without changing the oil, but we don't recommend it."

older cars

The hot button among America's motor-oil marketers these days is high-mileage products. Small wonder, since 65% of all vehicles on the road in the U.S. have 75,000 miles or more on their odometers, according to industry researcher NPD Group. Sales of high-mileage motor oil at seven major auto parts chains rose to 7.7% of all quarts sold for the 12 months ended July 2004 vs. 3.3% for the 12 months through July 2002.

High-mileage oil "is one of the primary growth areas of our business," Mr. Linder said. So the thrust of Valvoline's advertising is on the product. Valvoline's MaxLife brand remains No. 1 in high-mileage motor oil sales in the auto parts' retail channel, reports NPD.

Valvoline is keeping the pedal to the metal. Four 30-second TV spots for the product broke earlier this month from Borders Perrin Norrander, Portland, Ore.

Valvoline is trying to target customers by the type of cars or trucks they drive. Mr. Linder cited Valvoline's DuraBlend synthetic, which was just repositioned and relabeled as DuraBlend Tough Driving formula for hard-working engines on trucks and sport utilities.

Quaker State, has seen its market share slip in the past few years, according to NPD, which didn't have exact figures since it changed methodology in late 2001 for 2002.

Quaker State is examining its target audience as part of the brand's current review for a creative agency, said Ms. Talbert. Both Pennzoil and Quaker State brands will be differentiated, not by whether a person does his own oil changes or pays someone do it for them, but by different benefits to the customer, she said.

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