THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
ETHANOL CAMPAIGN FUELS INTEREST IN NEBRASKANS' USE OF ALTERNATIVE FUEL
, by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
Ethanol. Now there's a word that seems to have gotten everybody at one time or another in agriculture all gassed up! I remember the late 1970s and 1980s when ethanol was a word that conjured up many more negatives than positives. Today, it still has some negative connotations. It makes engines run hotter, it's bad for fuel injectors, it causes vapor lock, it plugs fuel lines, and it can't be used in older cars or small engines. Well, all of this is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!
A couple of decades ago, even gas stations in rural areas would promote the fact that their pumps didn't have ethanol in them. I remember driving into those stations and right out when I saw a sign like that. Those people were messin' with my livelihood in agribusiness.
Before we continue, however, what is E-10 Unleaded? Simply, it's 10 percent ethanol - a renewable additive made primarily from corn - blended with 90 percent unleaded gasoline. David Buchholz, president of David & Associates, has been working on ethanol marketing campaigns for two decades. He's seen it all (and it hasn't all been good).
"First it was referred to as gasohol, or super-unleaded, or 10 percent ethanol," Buchholz says. "There was a fragmented perception of what the brand actually was in Nebraska, and the U.S. for that matter. Changes had to be made to fix that."
The end result of the marketing campaign in the past few years has been remarkable. At the end of 1999, market penetration of ethanol in Nebraska was 24 percent. "In other words, one of four or five people in Nebraska on average was choosing ethanol blends," Buchholz says. That number has risen steadily. It's been as high as nearly 40 percent recently. That's due in great part to a concerted and coordinated effort to promote ethanol-blended gasoline.
Buchholz's work for the ethanol industry was one reason he recently was honored by the National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) as a recipient of the Professional Development Area Award of Excellence for Public Relations.
"When we decided to kick off the program a couple years ago, we found that 20 years of public education were successful," Buchholz says. "People believed ethanol-blended fuels were good for farmers, helped clean up the air, were good for the economy, and reduced our dependence on foreign oil."
However, there was a big "but" in this whole scenario. "But when consumers got to the pump, they weren't making the right choice," Buchholz points out. "The whole campaign has been built around making the right choice for fuel and the right choice for Nebraska. It's a pride thing."
In a somewhat chronological order of tactics in the past few years, here's what's happened to get Nebraska's consumers to buy ethanol-blended fuels and help the economy of the state and, of course, those involved in agriculture. The E-10 Unleaded campaign kicked off in the fall of 2000. Some of its tactics since then have included:
• A media kit with a tank full of information on ethanol and what it means to Nebraska farmers, the economy and the environment.
• Radio and TV spots that featured notable Nebraskans such as Chip Davis, the mastermind behind Mannheim Steamroller, and Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns.
• Auto technician training through community colleges. These workshops, underwritten by the coalition, help mechanics, technicians and others better understand the benefits of ethanol and promote the quality of the fuel. "At the beginning of the last seminar (in October with 108 participants) their understanding of the fuel quality of ethanol on a scale of one to 10 was 4.5," Buchholz says. "At the end of the seminar it was 7.8."
• Partnering with the Nebraska Lottery. "We provide free E-10 Unleaded certificates for the big winners in the Lottery's annual truck giveaway and their summer boat giveaway, plus additional promotion on the Lottery Web site, in its summer Players magazine that is distributed across the state, and at their booth at the Nebraska State Fair," Buchholz says. "The PR component has allowed us to reach the entire state simply for the cost of the fuel we underwrite."
• Sponsoring auto racing across the state, including a pace truck at one location. "At each location, consumer information on E-10 Unleaded is distributed," Buchholz says.
BUILDING THE BRAND
The collaboration of the three organizations has gone a long way toward building brand awareness of E-10 Unleaded, says Todd Sneller, administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board, the state agency that assists the private sector in establishing ethanol production facilities and strategies to market the product.
"This is the most comprehensive approach we've ever taken," Sneller says. "This has worked because of the consistency of our message. The messages reinforce one another, and this carries over to the consumer."
Sneller is now carrying this program to many other states from coast to coast. "We made presentations about the campaign to reps from 20 states last year," he says. "Other states can adapt our program for use in their states without straying too far from our message."
Don Hutchens, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board (and corn and soybean farmer) says pulling the three organizations together under one umbrella has allowed the coalition to better measure consumer attitudes. "We're united in our education efforts. When we collectively say something, we can see the direction it takes from the use of ethanol-blended gasoline by the people of Nebraska."
Hutchens made an important note of checkoff programs and their value for corn growers. "Sometimes there's a perception by people who pay into them that it's just another tax and it's not doing any good. The growth we've made in the ethanol industry here would not have been possible without the infusion of checkoff dollars. We can't underestimate the impact these dollars have had on our ability to promote and research what's been done over the years to make ethanol production more efficient."
Buchholz says grassroots marketing will continue and that public relations is "fundamental to building awareness and support of ethanol-blended gasoline." He speaks of an old mentor who once said "advertising is talking nicely about yourself. PR is someone else talking nicely about you." When FFA kids, the governor and auto technicians speak about the positives of ethanol, it's a lot more credible and powerful.
"We just don't have a huge advertising budget," Buchholz says. "We use PR to get it into the brains of Nebraska consumers that they have to buy ethanol-blended fuels. These efforts focus on consumers at the pump reaching for the nozzle. We want that nozzle to pump E-10 Unleaded with Ethanol."
Sneller gives Buchholz high marks for his ability to take three organizations and make them work together for one cause with one consistent message. "We've been pleased with the creativity and innovation of the agency," he says. "David saw a way to be mediator, collaborator and coordinator in this effort. He and his staff have done an exemplary job."
Check out www.e10unleaded.com for more information on the program. AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.