LIMA-Mobil, Shell and Texaco-racing to install modern, well-lit service stations here-are finding consumers asking, "What in the world are these things?"
In fact, the concept of friendly attendants and station services like oil changes, car washes and convenience stores are so foreign to Peruvians that oil companies are unwilling to break major campaigns touting them until they have done more research.
After the gasoline industry was privatized last year, foreign competitiors raced to tap Peru, opening 15 new service centers around Lima, with 50 planned by yearend. But full-scale advertising of the U.S.-style stations is still two months away.
"What do people expect when they enter a service station?" asked Adolfo Dammert, director of Intercom/ DDB Needham, which holds the Mobil del Peru account. "We don't know. We lack studies. A campaign is premature."
In actuality, Peruvians expect very little. After the oil industry was nationalized in 1968, sale of all petroleum products, including gasoline and kerosene, came under government control. One- and two-pump operations staffed by gruff, dirty attendants dot the country. The stations are known as grifos, which also means "nozzle," summing up the idea that all they were good for was a fill-up.
Grifos are infamous for watering down the gas, overcharging and stealing gas caps.
"Gas service has always been old and bad," said Gustavo Sanchez, account executive at Publicidad Causa/ Leo Burnett. Causa holds the account for Shell del Peru, which runs small newspaper ads announcing the openings on new stations only.
Grifos were privatized last year as a part of Peru's neo-liberal economic reforms and a new hydrocarbon law that permits foreign petroleum commpanies back into a market abandoned 27 years ago. Now, for the first time, Peruvians can theoretically choose their brand of gasoline.
The gas is all the same, however. Until the state oil company is completely privatized by the end of this year, the service stations must buy gas from state oil company Petroleros de Peru. Since the service station therefore is the product, marketing will concentrate on image and service.
Shell has been the most aggressive so far. But it has failed to strike a definitive message that educates Peruvians to the coming change its service centers represent.
The campaign consists of full-page newspaper ads announcing the inauguration of each of six completed Shell service stations here. Without defining the service station concept, Shell promises speedy and personal attention, new and modern services and "sincere friendship."
The ad is driven by a color photo of the new station and the Shell logo. However, a public not familiar with the product cannot interpret the ad. The slogan "We are closer to you" leaves readers wondering what's closer, and whether that is good.
Shell officials declined to comment on the company's ad strategy. Publicidad Causa's Mr. Sanchez said it was important to acquaint Peruvians with Shell, even before defining Shell's product, and to be in the market first.
"The first blow is the most important," he said.
But people on the street equate the new service stations with the old grifos: It is where you go to buy gas.
"There is confusion in the market; people don't know what they are buying," Intercom's Mr. Dammert said. "This is the start of a big change. The question is, how well can these companies position themselves in the mind of the public?"
The first company to demonstrate that will be on the road to market leadership.