The New Age of Bioheat Marketing: GREEN MEANS GO!
By Rich Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.
The longer one stares into the crystal ball of America's future, the greener it all looks. The fact is, in more ways than one, the bright green glow of bioheat is already being felt.
Industry executives and their legislative allies at the state and national levels all agree-as time rolls by, the country will need, and will embrace homegrown, plant-based energy resources at an ever-accelerating pace.
And this trend, in turn, will spur the steady growth of new jobs-all based on American soil-in agriculture, research & development, transportation and in other important industries. It's a very bright picture. Yet it remains a hazy one too, as many details of bioheat's emergence will take time to be resolved.
Clearly, the permanent arrival of bioheat will bring about a seismic shift in the way the country thinks about home energy. The availability, price stability, and the political security of crude oil overseas will fade as a source of constant concern. But Oilheat dealers, distributors and managers will be facing a new business challenge: marketing the new energy reality. Some in 2006 are already attacking that challenge.
They are the vanguard—the handful of forward thinking marketers who were quick to achieve a high comfort level with bioheat right away. It has been PriMedia's good fortune to have worked closely and collaboratively with a number of them...which is why we know these marketers share a common understanding of the transitional times we find ourselves in nationally and globally. Environmental awareness is on a steep upward climb. Hurricane Katrina, drought in the southwest, unusual weather patterns, and instantaneous news delivery ricocheting around the world, 24/7, has made millions of citizens more environmentally conscious and caring than they've ever been. The scenario could hardly be any more favorable for bioheat's debut—and these companies understand.
Take a look: E.T. Lawson, of Norfolk, VA (www.etlawson.com) has had its entire fleet of trucks redesigned recently, and they now sport a clear, direct message-"Bioheat-Fuel of the Future." In the Bronx, New York City, Fred M. Schildwachter & Sons (www.schildwachteroil.com) has gone as far as talking up bioheat in full page ads in (regional editions of) national magazines, including Time and Newsweek. Stover Fuel in Hershey, PA. now promotes bioheat actively in locally placed space advertising and with newsletters, as does Genesee Fuel in Seattle, WA. In any industry-in every industry-it is taken as an article of faith that whenever you have some genuine good news to report to customers, you bring out your biggest guns. There is really no reason to hold back. For Oilheat dealers who are ready to go with bioheat, there has never been a more dynamic moment for talking to customers about something that is truly new.
One could fairly argue, in fact, that bioheat is not just something "new and improved" but actually revolutionary. Even if you have not yet purchased any soybean-inclusive blends, it's not too early to envision re-tooling the communications you normally use to promote your company's products and services. Unless you are among the very few who have no serious local competition, you may want to think in terms of a fully integrated strategic marketing plan...one that makes it clear that bioheat is a great thing, that it's here to stay, and that everyone benefits from bioheat-most of all the residential end-user, your customer.
What makes the marketing opportunity of bioheat even more promising is that most companies will be gradually ramping up, year after year, to ever-larger percentages of soybean oil in their Oilheat blends. For example: a local dealer has already gotten a big marketing bump when it initially made the move to bioheat. Now, a year later, that same company wants its B5 standard (5% soybean oil / 95% traditional Oilheat) to become a B10 blend. This presents a fresh chance for the marketing dealer to tell the bioheat story again to customers. And to trumpet more good news. If, in the following year, that same company decides to sell B20, then they can keep on telling their customers the positive story of bioheat and continue to nurture stronger customer relationships.
As with all marketing efforts, the audience always comes first. Don't let your perspective get in the way of fully appreciating your customers' perspectives. When talking to them, directly or through your promotional media, keep their "enlightened self-interest" and their priorities foremost in mind. That means detailing bioheat's advantages by explaining what's in it for them personally before listing other factors. Most of the time, that first layer of critical information will line up something like this:
- It works! Produces the same soothing Oilheat warmth.
- No burner or tank modifications required!
- No new equipment/parts needed.
- No changes necessary to current budget plans they are on.
- No changes in warranties already in place.
- Costs practically the same to homeowner (although this may be regarded as highly variable, depending on local/regional conditions...with some dealers charging a premium rate for the greener fuel.)
- Lubricates burner & furnace parts more thoroughly and efficiently... reducing number of regular service calls needed annually.
- Burns more cleanly—adding longevity to the hardware of the system they are already using.
- Has a higher flashpoint, making bioheat even safer than traditional Oilheat.
Only after these issues have been "brought home" should the next bioheat data layer show up on customers' radar screens:
- Helps reduce air pollution... great for everyone; especially those with allergies or compromised respiratory function.
- Achieves a reduction in volumes of carcinogens in the atmosphere.
- Will conserve millions of gallons of traditional heating oil as its use becomes more widespread.
- Helps make America free of dependence on foreign oil, with all the positive implications of this--politically, economically, militarily, etc.
- Helps create new jobs for Americans, especially in agriculture, transportation, research, and at refineries and depots, etc.
Professional marketers must and usually do understand that maintaining balance is critical whenever economic and ethical/environmental issues are in apparent conflict. Among your customers, who is ever going to be strongly (or even weakly) against a cleaner physical environment for everyone to live in? Yet, the average citizen's staunch idealism will fade like cheap paint the minute he or she begins to feel that the cost of green living may be too high. The great thing about bioheat, however, is that its pricing now is so competitive that a conflict between economic values and environmental/ethical values does not exist. And where this is not entirely true quite yet--in Washington State, for example [see below]--it is only a matter of time before it will be.
Don Allen Jr. is President of E.T. Lawson in Hampton, VA., as well as current Board of Directors Chairman at NORA. For Allen, "de-commodifying" the product is a must.
"If you market your Oilheat without distinguishing it, as if it's the same basic product others in your county are selling, you encourage your residential base to keep their eyes fixed on price alone. On the other hand, when you effectively make your case that the product is qualitatively different, and your service superior, price will shrink in importance," Allen asserts. "The appearance of low-sulfur heating oil a few years ago" he continues, "gave dealer-entrepreneurs something new to crow about...an important differentiating factor." Now, in Don Allen's view, bioheat's sudden entrance on the scene opens the door to dramatic promotion that can only help Oilheat dealers-as-marketers.
Allen's company was happy to be treated to some free marketing last May when President Bush visited Virginia's Biodiesel Refineries in West Point, VA. It was here that the President touted biodiesel as "one of our nation's most promising alternative fuel sources." The West Point Refineries is where E.T. Lawton's trucks go to "fuel up with soy."
David Schildwachter of Fred M. Schildwachter & Sons Fuel Oil in the Bronx, New York City has been a bioheat believer for quite some time. "Since November of 2002," he eagerly reports. As a large biodiesel supplier--in addition to their role as home heating service provider--Schildwachter Fuel Oil was afforded early exposure to the coming "revolution." Dave Schildwachter says that even with clients as big as the USPS, Con Edison (local utility), and the U.S. Military (not to mention his own company's extensive fleet of trucks) he never heard a single complaint. "Zero!" he states emphatically.
With this experience instructing them, Schildwachter Fuel Oil had no hesitation about making the jump into the home heating end of the business with bioheat. "Of course, once the federal excise tax credit was approved with the new Energy Bill (August, 2005) it was a no-brainer...bioheat would now cost essentially the same at the wholesale level as traditional home heating oil." Though Schildwachter Fuel Oil has, among many thousands, just 100 residential bioheat customers now, in the Winter of 2006, David Schildwachter sees rapid growth ahead...perhaps as much as a tenfold increase in bioheat-stoked homeowners in his customer base by the Spring of 2007. A handsome company website page devoted to bioheat may help towards that end.
Stover Fuel's President is Michael A. Stover; his business is in Hershey, PA. Asked whether it was hard deciding to give bioheat the "green light" for his company, Stover says, "Not at all." Recalling the first demo of bioheat he ever witnessed, Stover remembers his strong response: "The flame patterns were very impressive. You could clearly see how much more efficiently the bioheat fuel burned vs. standard petroleum-based heating oil." Before long, Stover made the commitment to bioheat, and he has not looked back. Now, virtually all of his residential customers have had, or soon will have, low-percentage soybean blends flowing in their storage tanks. With broad vistas of rich agricultural land that can accommodate soybeans surrounding the city of Hershey, Stover's fuel future is looking strong. The Hershey Chronicle runs Stover's bioheat space ad on a regular basis, and Stover says that consumer response has been extremely receptive and favorable.
Out in the State of Washington, the picture is similar, but not exactly identical. Steven Clark is President of Genessee Fuel, Seattle. Clark reports that even with the federal excise tax credits in force until January of 2008, there is a $.15-$.23 per gallon difference in price between traditional heating oil and the B 20 bioheat blend he now offers to customers. But Washington has been a very pro-actively pro-environment state for many years, and Genesee has customers who are willing to pay a little bit more to "do the right (green) thing," as they see it. And as a good marketer should, Clark is staying a few steps ahead of his own customers by heating his family home with an Oilheat mix that contains a full 40% soybean oil. Regardless of the current economics of higher priced soybean oil, which he knows will only get better, he wants to experience the future for himself. And he wants to be sure there are no unforeseen issues with this more "plant-potent" blend. Right now, Clark is now saying, "so far, so good."
E.T. Lawton...Fred M. Schildwachter & Sons...Stover...Genesee...these four home comfort / Oilheat companies, spread about in four separate states, all see the value of communicating with their customers about bioheat via direct mail, newsletters, brochures, door hangers, the internet, space advertising, through their knowledgeable staffs and other avenues. Their executive leaders have peeked at the future and know that what is coming is green...very green! As marketers, they have decided to get the bioheat ball rolling rather than waiting to play catch-up later on. They've carefully calculated that the more they deliver soybean green to the tanks of residential homeowners, the more of "the other green"—U.S. currency—they'll be sure to harvest for the futures of their respective firms.
If you have any questions about how to develop a "mean and green" marketing mix, please feel free to give PriMedia a call--we'll be more than happy to share our experience and expertise to help you get started. Bioheat will be the greatest new thing once, and only once: that time has arrived.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.oilheat-advertising.com.