THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
, by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
There are five convenience stores (gas, groceries and other stuff) within one mile of my office here in beautiful downtown New Prague, Minn. So, to say the competition is fierce between these retail establishments here and everywhere across this great United States might be an understatement.
Now, I've got to be frank with you. When I think of what are conveniently called c-stores, I think of Casey's General Stores, 7-Elevens, Tom Thumbs, and stores connected with the major petroleum companies (Shell, BP, etc). What I don't think of often is Cenex, a CHS convenience store brand. But with 100 new stores in 2003, CHS now has more than 800 stores, mostly from Illinois to Montana and Minnesota to Texas, carrying the Cenex brand.
At my very first newspaper job in the early 1970s, a sage old editor named Bill Macklin always told me to find the "local angle" for any big story. So, off I trucked one morning to find a local Cenex c-store and get the real scoop on the new promotional efforts originating by the corporate folks at CHS. Were the local folks as excited about the new "Helpful" campaign? Were there signs of the promotion visible at the location? Was the store manager fired up about the promotion?
Equally important was whether I was about to discover that this great new promotion was all hype, and PR geniuses at headquarters were just trying to get me to write something in this magazine. Was I about to uncover great dissatisfaction by store managers in the field? Was I about to write my latest award-winning piece of journalistic prose and uncover the real story about this new "Helpful" campaign by CHS?
"I've been here nine years as manager and this is probably at the top of my list of promotions," says Holicky. "It's a catchy idea. It's for all our customers, not just those with Cenex cards. And it's fun to come up with 'helpful' ideas for our customers."
THE PROMOTION PROFILE
Cenex hopes to add 600 branded sites in the next five years. To be successful, company marketing folks believe it can't be done by doing the same kinds of promotional tactics of the past. So, a two-pronged approach was taken to give more visibility to the Cenex brand. The "Helpful" campaign through stores to consumers was one, and an effort to get some business-to-business publicity generated in newspapers and trade magazine placements was the other.
"Let's just say in the past we didn't always have the largest of marketing budgets," says Darin Hunhoff, Refined Fuels brands, products and marketing manager for CHS. "As a result, our spending was spread thin throughout our whole territory. We decided to use a rifle instead of a shotgun approach and target our efforts to increase our brand awareness."
in the pilot market.
The Cenex brand marketing team at CHS has not only been thrilled with the sales results, but the participation by the c-stores. With most campaigns, 25 percent participation was common, they say. The "Helpful" campaign has participation rates among its dealers in the 80 to 90 percent range, Hunhoff says.
A full array of marketing tools is used to help promote the effort. An added benefit to the "Helpful" campaign is the enthusiasm by store employees too; as Hunhoff says, it gets beyond the idea that "the lowest gas price or special price on Snickers bars was the way to connect with customers."
One focus by CHS was to do training sessions on customer service for store employees. "We underestimated the impact we'd have on helping store clerks with customer service," Hunhoff says. "That changed the culture. Simple things like the button on the shirts. These were easy things for the store to execute and tie in with the more traditional customer service efforts."
Hunhoff adds that some "helpful" promotional ideas at local stores have been fed back to their team and may be used for future efforts. "Some stores are giving prizes to employees who come up with the best 'helpful' idea," he says. "We're trying to incent folks to share and contribute ideas from the front line. That way they feel more ownership in the idea, rather than having corporate shove it down their throats."
Simultaneous to the "Helpful" campaign effort, CHS's Ann Mann, energy communications director, and Rich Fischer, senior counselor for Colle+McVoy, were busy telling the story about Cenex to consumer media in targeted areas and to business publications. After all, one measure of this campaign is the number of new leads and ultimately new store openings.
One effort involved a media visit to Convenience Store News, where CHS execs talked about growth plans. The magazine ranked Cenex 13th in its 2003 rankings of convenience stores (from 18th the year before). "We wanted to show them the real people behind the Cenex brand and the services they bring to customers," says Mann. Adds Fischer: "The trade knew us, but there was some confusion about which was the company, which was the brand. This was a good opportunity to help editors learn about us and our resources."
Long-term publicity opportunities were another reason for the media relations effort. "The goal was not only to measure placements and audience impressions but increase visibility for Cenex and gain share of voice in publications," says Mann. "The media was aware of our brand but didn't know a lot about us."
Business-to-business publications such as National Petroleum News, Twin Cities Business Journal and Convenience Store Decisions also did articles on CHS. Reprints have been made of articles and are used as marketing tools to help grow the business. Additional publicity has been generated in daily newspapers such as the Fargo Forum in Fargo, N.D., and Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"We can directly benefit from the exposure in these magazines," says Pete Willson, manager of retail development, refined fuels, for CHS. "We can look at some of the results and see a direct connection to dealers through this exposure."
Mann reports that 1 million gross impressions have led to more than just brand awareness. Two locations recently signed a Cenex brand agreement, and the sale, representing 1.5 million gallons of fuel, can be directly linked to the media relations initiative.
When you want to add 600 stores in five years, the more people who are exposed to your brand, the better the opportunity to grow the business with new and conversion stores. "One example of that is in Nebraska, which has grown from a few Cenex stores to 15 inside of 24 months," Willson says. "Our growth, in part, will come from our key watershed states where we have the best economic returns with our refinery assets in Montana and Kansas."
The other reality that's impacting growth plans is more government regulations, which will require CHS to invest millions of dollars in its refineries. "We need to ramp up our growth and can't be content anymore to just work within our existing customer base, the traditional co-op customer."
The overall impact of the promotional efforts in the past year has given Hunhoff a chance to reflect on overall marketing programs. "I've come to view this current effort not as an event, but as a strategy," he says. "All too often you have an event that has a start time and a stop time, and then you're on to what's next. We've got to stay with this and build on it."
One example is that the "Helpful" campaign in Wisconsin this fall is tied in to the Green Bay Packer radio network. "We want to create a consistent consumer experience and send consistent messages to our store managers," Mann adds.
Fischer says that's it's much like a public relations program. "It's an ongoing thing," he says. "We've reintroduced the Cenex brand with a bang. Now we want to continue the dialogue with our audiences."
Well, you've got Ann Holicky on board. "We've only been at this a short time," she says. "But it's attracting customers and they are talking about it. That's what it's all about." AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.