How to Sell E15 by Any Other Name

Source: By Samantha Oller, CSP Magazine • Posted: Monday, September 12, 2016

Have I got a fuel for you!

It is higher octane than E10, giving you greater bang for your buck. It features even more  environmentally friendly, domestically produced ethanol. And it is actually a few cents cheaper—cheaper!—than regular, old regular-grade gasoline. Its name?

Unleaded Plus.

Or how about Unleaded15?

Or Unleaded e15?

E15 has slowly but steadily been rolling out to more fuel retailers, with more than 300 sites in 23 states offering the 15% ethanol blend. And the number of large chains adding it to their fuel offer continues to grow. Most recently, RaceTrac announced plans to offer E15 at more than 100 sites in the next three years, joining Murphy USA, Kum & Go, Thorntons, Sheetz and other retail heavyweights.

But the decision of how to brand E15 has not been easy. For one, the Environmental Protection Agency approves its use in vehicle models 2001 and newer—80% of the vehicles on the road today—but warns motorcycle, boat and other small engine owners against fueling up with it. It also restricts E15’s sale in the summer to flex-fuel vehicles only because of an ongoing issue with Reid Vapor Pressure regulations. And there is the negative publicity drummed up by ethanol opponents, who are shining a spotlight on the possible dangers of misfueling with E15.

Retailers have taken a variety of marketing approaches to combat these hurdles. Murphy USA, which has rolled out E15 in the Chicago and Houston markets, simply refers to it as E15. Thorntons, also adding it to its Chicago-area sites, chose Unleaded15. And Family Express, which began adding it this summer to its Indiana c-stores, is going with Unleaded e15.

But are these disparate strategies in the best interest of the product?

“This whole E15 vs. E10 vs. regular unleaded throws everybody off,” says Todd Garner, CEO and managing member of ethanol fueling solutions provider Protec Fuel Management LLC, Boca Raton, Fla. “We all want to be on the same page because from an education standpoint, to get this across the country, everyone is going to have to adopt the same name for it.”


Protec has been installing E15 at various c-store and fuel retailer sites across Florida and Texas. About 35 sites in its network offer the ethanol blend so far. That number should grow to about 100 by year’s end as Protec expands installations into Virginia and Maryland.

Protec does not own the sites; it partners with the retailer, installs the blending pumps, storage and related equipment, and provides marketing. But it does meet with other E15 retailers about once or twice a year to discuss the fuel blend, and branding “is always a topic of conversation,” says Garner.

“The simplest sales pitch is that it saves people money.”

Ultimately, Protec’s retailer partners decide how to brand E15. In the Southeast, many of them simply choose “E15.” Garner appreciates why “Unleaded Plus” could also work—E15 is slightly higher-octane than E10 at 88 vs. 87—but there is concern among retailers about confusing or unintentionally deceiving customers.

“There is discussion: Are we really calling it what it is? Are we trying to disguise it? Are we trying to make something it isn’t?” says Garner. “A lot of the bigger chains are worried that if they start calling it ‘Unleaded Plus,’ it’s not really describing what it is.”

There is also potential confusion with midgrade gasoline, which some retailers brand as “Plus.”

“So if you start calling something Unleaded Plus, what does that mean to their customer base if they are used to seeing an unleaded, plus and premium button? Now you’ve added Unleaded Plus—is that midgrade and regular gasoline?

“Unleaded Plus from a recognition standpoint seems to be the better way to go,” Garner says. “But there’s not a good consensus.”

Consumer Understanding

The potential for consumer confusion is real. In an online discussion forum for 1970s vehicle enthusiasts, one user was completely bewildered by the array of ethanol blends at a local gas station. In a post with the subject line, “Fuel Choices (WTH?),” he writes:

“OK … so I pull up to the pumps at a newly reopened gas station today and am a little puzzled with the fuel options presented to me.

“This place states the Unleaded Plus is 15% ethanol (E15) and introduces E30 (minimum 25% ethanol) and E85 (minimum 51% ethanol). I was always under the assumption the E85 meant 85% gas and 15% ethanol. [I] had no idea those vehicles or any vehicles for that matter could run on anything more than 15% ethanol, let alone a [minimum of] 51% ethanol. And, [I] have never heard of E30. WTF?!!”

Minnoco, a fuel brand for members of the Minnesota Service Station & Convenience Store Association, brands its E15 as Unleaded Plus. As of press time, 18 of the 21 Minnoco-branded sites sold Unleaded Plus. By the end of 2016, the total number of Minnoco sites should grow to 36, with 34 selling E15.

Because E15 offers a higher octane than E10, Minnoco-branded retailers do not sell midgrade, which helps avoid consumer confusion. But Lance Klatt, executive director of the Little Canada, Minn.-based association, believes there is not necessarily an issue with the multiple brand names in the market for E15.

“It’s up to the retailers,” says Klatt. “As long as consumers understand it, it’s up to the retailer to educate them.”

Keep It Simple

Family Express, Valparaiso, Ind., began rolling E15 out to about a third of its 68 sites this summer, and it has branded the ethanol blend as Unleaded e15.

According to Gus Olympidis, president and CEO, the decision to brand it Unleaded e15—as opposed to just referring to it as E15—is about communicating to the consumer that this is an upgrade to the ubiquitous E10.

“Essentially, this is a replacement fuel for regular unleaded,” says Olympidis. “The less esoterically you define it, the better appeal it would have to the consumer. The key word is not the ‘E15’ in the description of the product—it’s ‘unleaded.’ That’s the thought behind it: You should be upgrading from regular unleaded to Unleaded e15.”

Thorntons Inc., Louisville, Ky., is rolling out E15 to all 43 of its Chicago-area stores under the brand name Unleaded15. As of press time, it was available at nine sites. CEO Tony Harris describes Unleaded15 as “a unique fuel product” because it improves engine power and performance through the higher octane content, despite typically costing less at the pump than E10.

In naming it Unleaded15, Thorntons is aiming to highlight that uniqueness but in an easily understandable way.

“Unleaded15 is our way to explain that although this fuel type is unique compared to other unleaded fuel options, it is an approachable product that guests can feel comfortable using,” says Harris. “Also, as a leader within the fuel retailer industry, Thorntons branded E15 as Unleaded15 in order for it to be ownable and recognizable with our guests.”

Kristin Lynch, director of national marketing for Thorntons, says the greatest marketing challenge is “driving awareness and education around Unleaded15 and the difference compared to other fuel products.”

Thorntons is taking a phased approach to addressing this. The first phase is educating store employees with training modules so that they become “subject-matter experts” on E15. For customers, the retailer is offering a “Fuel Facts” brochure of frequently asked questions at each site.

The second phase is focused on driving further awareness and purchases, and it still is a work in progress. It could include special promotional pricing on E15; Thorntons had been pricing it 3 cents per gallon below E10 during its Chicago grand openings. Also, the company may train “brand ambassadors” to chat with customers at the fuel island about E15. Thorntons also hopes to offer fuel discounts through its Refreshing Rewards loyalty program to drive trial and excitement.

Ball of Confusion

The questions remain: Do these multiple brand names only add to consumer confusion, and could they actually complicate E15’s rollout?

David Robinson, creative director of Birch Studio, worries about exactly this potential. Robinson’s Charlottesville, Va.-based agency has done consumer outreach and branding work for Virginia Clean Cities on alternative fuels.

“If someone calls it ‘E15 Unleaded’ and someone else calls it ‘Super E15,’ the consumer is not going to know it’s the same thing,” he says. “I would argue that’s a dangerous thing for the industry.”

He advises retailers to all stick with one brand name—E15, preferably—and instead focus on the sell.

“The simplest sales pitch is that it saves people money,” says Robinson. “Everyone likes saving money. But then there are the questions that come up, myths, etc. If you can address those properly and directly, then they’ll say, ‘OK, that’s fine—I’ll go save money now.’ ”

“What you really want to do is myth busting,” says Alleyn Harned, executive director of Virginia Clean Cities, Harrisonburg, Va., who recommends drawing attention to E15 with fuel discounts. “Inform folks who are interested in a cleaner, more domestically fueled future—cleaner air, cheaper fuel more economic opportunity.”

For retailers who sell E15, the indecision over how to brand the fuel is less of an issue than the continued opposition and “misinformation campaign” from the petroleum industry and other groups. But they expect that this roadblock will eventually fall as more chains introduce the fuel—and more consumers give it a chance.

“Unleaded e15 is introduced in the context of the same conversation that E10 had to endure many years ago,” says Olympidis of Family Express. “We now know that some of the early warnings were unfounded. I fully expect the same to be the case with Unleaded e15.”