Magazine article Marketing

Designing the New Jet

Magazine article Marketing

Designing the New Jet

Article excerpt

Jet was having to cut its petrol prices more and more to compete. Could a forecourt redesign win new customers without upsetting loyal users? Ken Gofton reports

Conoco's Jet petrol belongs to the minimalist school of marketing. No advertising and one simple proposition -- lower prices. In many markets this would be enough to earn a secure niche. It worked for Conoco until the late 80s, when things started to go wrong. To maintain market share, Conoco found it had to widen the price differential between Jet and the majors such as Shell and Esso -- and every penny off a gallon means, by the company's own admission, "millions off the bottom line".

That position has since been transformed. From being trapped between the hammer of the majors and the anvil of a growing supermarket challenge for the petrol trade, Jet has increased its market share from 6% to 8%. It may not sound enough to rock the UK's |pounds~16bn petrol and diesel business to its foundations, but for Conoco it's an impressive 33% uplift. It has attracted better quality operators, with bigger sites, and won a slice of the growing supermarket trade.

A new look for the forecourts and their shops was the vital element in the turnaround. It has just won for Conoco and its design consultancy, the Anglo-French Crabtree Hall/Plan Creatif, a prestigious Design Effectiveness Award from the Design Business Association (Marketing, December 3).

Most of the majors have already been through the design hoop, with Shell, BP and Texaco notable among those who have invested millions on revamping their forecourts. So, in a sense, this is Jet learning lessons already mastered by bigger rivals. It is also a case study notable, however, for the way market research and design worked -- or were made to work -- particularly closely together.

Conoco, with its limited marketing resources for Jet, took the unusual step in 1988 of asking Sue Chambers, a director of its research agency, Pegram Walters Associates (PWA) to act as "keeper of the brand".

Superficially, this sounds bizarre. On reflection, though, there is an exact parallel with the use of the so-called planning function in ad agencies. Never mind the assumptions of the client, or the wilder flights of the creative department, the planner's job is to establish what the public really thinks about the brand and what it communicates. "That was research's role in the project team," says Conoco brand support manager Roy Jones. "Using research in this way, we believe we got a very profitable design solution, very quickly."

So fundamental were the problems, PWA decided to start by reviewing the whole petrol-buying experience, using standard research techniques such as asking consumers to fill in cartoon speech bubbles, to get a fix on what they thought of the simple operation of filling up their cars.

First finding: the oil majors are rip-off merchants. Second finding: buying petrol is threatening.

"A typical bubble cartoon has the pump thinking humans are stupid and can't

work machinery, and the car thinking the buyer is stupid and is probably putting in the wrong petrol. Even the buyer thinks he might be stupid enough not to have any money with him," says Chambers. "So there are many threatening feelings, coming from all sorts of directions."

The research also probed how people choose petrol stations. Clearly there is a price-sensitive market sector, which is very important to Jet. "Essentially, this is my dad in a Lada, scouring the town for the cheapest petrol. He used to know more about petrol prices than I did," says Jones.

Most people, though, will say that for something as basic as petrol, they just go to the most convenient outlet -- no great help to Jet, which can't afford prime sites. Discussion group members, however, were asked to describe the routes they followed when buying petrol. Frequently that led to other group members saying: "But why don't you use such-and-such garage -- that's along there. …

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