Introducing E15 with a smile

Source: By Susanne Retka Schill, Ethanol Producer Magazine • Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Brand ambassadors are the newest tactic in introducing E15 across the country. “You can only do so much on radio and billboards,” explains Street Factory Media’s director of operations Corey Spoden. Street Factory is a Minneapolis-based company that specializes in guerilla marketing, creating events to promote clients’ businesses and products. This past year, the company has been tapped to train teams of brand ambassadors to help with the rollout of E15.

“There’re 130 stations selling E15 today, another 230 in the pipeline and, hopefully, over 500 on top of that next year with the USDA program,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of market development with Growth Energy. “Just knowing that wave was coming, we looked at it six to eight months ago and realized there are going to be a lot of grand openings.”  Nobody has the staff to handle the kind of growth that’s coming, so the promoters of E15 looked for a way to extend the reach of ethanol supporters. “There needs to be some consumer education,” O’Brien continues. “These flex dispensers can be confusing at times. We found the Street Factory and brand ambassadors that brought to the table the kind of professionalism that we wanted. We found that they’re very scalable. We’re able to do events in Florida at the same time as we are doing events in Iowa.”

Gina Zappa, program manager and talent recruiter for Street Factory Media, has been hiring and training the teams to serve the different markets where E15 will be rolled out in the months ahead. “We look for outgoing, positive, upbeat people who can deliver the right messaging to the consumer,” she says. Then, working with American Ethanol, the new brand ambassadors learn the primary talking points on the benefits of ethanol blends, as well as which cars can use E15 and how to identify a flex-fuel vehicle.

Role playing is part of the training as the ambassadors practice approaching customers and engaging them in a short conversation. Zappa adds that wearing flashy neon vests helps identify the ambassadors as working at the station, plus they carry literature to hand out, in case someone doesn’t want to engage in a conversation. Being friendly and respectful is key.

Brand ambassadors help relieve some of the confusion when customers roll up to fuel at the new pumps in a newly converted stations, O’Brien says. With fuel terminals not yet offering the blended fuel, stations have been adding blender pumps in order to be able to offer E15 by blending E85. That means the dispensers that once had one hose and three grades of gas now have three hoses and five grades. “I’ve watched people with E15,” O’Brien says. “They’ll pull up and see that price point and you can see the wheels turning in their head. ‘Should I be buying this? Is it safe for my car? What’s going on here? Do I take this hose, that hose?’”

No stranger to ethanol blends, Iowa-based Kum & Go began offering E85 in 1997.  Today, 170 out of its 430 stores offer E85. In the past year, Kum & Go added E15 at seven stores and has plans for more. Kum & Go has experimented with midlevel ethanol blends in the past, although they were never promoted, says Jim Pirolli, vice president of fuels. “The midlevel blends are great products, but the consumer base is small and the message was confusing. The brand ambassadors really help in this aspect as we roll out E15. Not only do they explain the benefits of E15 to customers, but they also train our store associates and give some tips on up-selling. When they leave, our associates are prepared to have the conversations with customers around E15—who can use E15, the benefits, etc.”

Kum & Go creates a festive atmosphere in its promotional events used to introduce ethanol blends. “Most promotions run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a discount on the fuel grade we’re promoting, such as E85 for 85 cents per gallon,” Pirolli explains. “We work with industry partners to run radio and print ads to promote the event in advance, and often host a live radio broadcast during the promotion.” The company sees the promotions and fuel discounts as a way to thank its regular customers, as well as giving new customers an economic incentive to try it. Offering a discount for a couple of hours, doesn’t drive long-term sales without the educational component, he adds. “It takes time, investment, and dedication to increase consumer awareness around fuel options. Our best E85 markets, for example, are communities in which we have been part of a collaborative effort to promote E85 for several years. These efforts are based on long-term, consistent advertising and outreach programs focused on the benefits of higher ethanol blends.” Pirolli says.  “E15 represents a new challenge, as there is a larger potential market, but lower awareness and understanding of the fuel. The brand ambassadors have been a tremendous help in the product launch. I can’t say enough for the effort they put in and the excitement they bring to the promotions. The brand ambassador program offers many benefits to retailers and consumers, and I hope it continues.”

In addition to working a promotion event, Street Factory’s brand ambassadors can also be deployed for a full week, working the morning and later afternoon rushes. Not only does that approach increase the number of conversations, but over five days it reaches the vast majority of regular customers. “This is a new endeavor, a young program that we continue to build on,” Spoden says. “We’re very proud of being part of this program and making a difference in the communities we’re introducing ethanol into. We’re looking for ways to strengthen the message and to get out there, educate people and get them to use the fuel.”