Oil PSUs retune brands to millennial mode, step up digital media presence

In a recent campaign, #PehleIndianPhirOil, IOC highlights the many ways in which the brand is a part of the larger community
Over the past few months, India’s oil marketing giants have  seemingly flouted almost every rule in the branding rulebook. They have extended their brands to products that have little bearing with their areas of core competence; Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) has launched branded bottled water, for one. They have espoused green energy and extended corporate support to events that often stand in direct opposition to their product; Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL), Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and HPCL were the main sponsors for a national cycling event last month. And their Twitter timelines are all about saving energy and consuming less fuel.

Why are oil majors associating with causes that advocate a future that is less dependent on fuel and getting into products that are unlikely to benefit from their ties to the core brand? The reason: these are the causes that win millennial hearts. And, as a recent report by Kantar Millward Brown (BrandZ Top 100 most valuable brands) pointed out, downstream brands are eager to gain customer respect. According to the report, it is time for such businesses to “implement more effective and efficient communications strategies that reach the influencers and sustain brand and reputation.”

This is why IOC, HPCL, BPCL and ONGC are backing green causes and professional cycling, and also why IOC’s Twitter  timeline is all about using less fuel. It is an effort to engage with customers in different media and at different points of purchase, in the hope that their brands will stay relevant for a new generation of consumers more keenly focused on the environment than any other group before them. 

“The cyclathon event was launched by Petroleum Conservation Research Association, along with the fuel retailers. At a category level these companies may be selling fuel, but at a higher level they wish to contribute to energy efficiency,” said Kiran Khalap, co-founder and managing director for Chlorophyll, a brand and communications consultancy. 

Does it help when the branding narrative stands in sharp contrast to the primary business of these companies? It works because the brands are seen as being associated with a larger national cause of energy security, says Khalap.

In recent years, cooking oil brands have attempted something similar when they pledged their support for healthy, less-oil and even oil-free cooking. Whether consumers buy into the advertising narrative or not, the idea is to associate the brand with a larger cause instead of just the product.

Harish Bijoor, founder of Harish Bijoor Consults sees a multi-layered message being sent across through such initiatives. “The first message is use less fuel. The second that is embedded in it is the fact that fuel imports comprise a big portion of valuable foreign exchange for the country. Being a PSU, the effort is to reduce this outflow,” he said. “The third message is about living a clean life with less hydro-carbons and a smaller carbon footprint,” he added.

Apart from the divergent and varied brand stories that the oil PSUs are seeking to tell, they have also put their weight behind art events and raised their presence on digital media. IOC is a sponsor to The Canvas Code, a platform for upcoming artists from across India. While art is an old favourite among oil companies, now there is an attempt to tell a larger diversity story through such associations, point out experts. 

Bijoor sees all of this as an attempt to move away from the image of being an uncaring oil giant. “The fourth message is to say that we believe in the good things of life, cycling and art included. We are not an uncaring behemoth as you might believe us to be!” he added. 

In this, the oil companies are perhaps taking a leaf out of the books of fellow multinational brands. Chevron, Shell and others have worked extensively with their communities across countries to offer art scholarships or talent platforms for music or sport or other such areas. Khalap cites the example of Coca Cola and Coke Studio, a popular global musical initiative that brings different artists together. “Associating one’s brand with another activity unrelated to one’s product category but related to the organisation’s core values is a valid method of engaging new stakeholders, whether consumers, dealers or partners,” he says and adds that the key here is the organic match between the core values of the brand and the core values of the sponsored activity. 

How does one explain HPCL’s foray into bottled water, however? The water brand Reminero has been launched in Hyderabad and Secunderabad on a pilot project basis. 

Here there may be a different synergy at play. Khalap sees it as an attempt by HPCL to leverage its existing retail network. “This is probably HPCL’s idea of leveraging its huge physical distribution set up.  It is similar to the government’s idea of using the Indian Postal Service network for doorstep banking. Since these are established brick and mortar networks, it makes sense to load them with new products,” he said.

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