Back from the dead: Ampol brand chief on $160m rebuild of retro-cool icon tracking ahead of forecast; connecting with Gen Z, going large on Australiana and how emotion is working
Ampol is back from the dead and should deliver the brand case study of the decade - for better or worse. The iconic, retro-cool Australian brand lay dormant for 26 years but in April kicked off one of the biggest brand revivals in 20 years as it races to beat US giant Chevron after a bust-up over the Australian rights to Caltex it held until last year. Ampol is banking once again on Australian roots over foreign brands for a competitive advantage – in 1936 Ampol was created to counter price gouging from off-shore oil companies. But there's millions of younger customers for which Ampol is mere vapour. Four months in and the Australian thing is working, say Chief Brand Officer Jenny O'Regan, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Anthony Gregorio and Mike Spirkovski and iProspect’s Jason Smith. Here's the latest for an Australian fuel company in the race of its life – literally – against global giants.
What you need to know:
- Four months in, Ampol's "Lazarus" moment is working; Chief Brand Officer Jenny O'Regan says brand metrics and business performance are ahead of forecast.
- Pumping Australian and local is a crowded space - Ampol landed in similar territory to Coles' "Value the Australian Way" before relaunching with "Far and Wide".
- The younger set were not born when the Ampol brand was buried in the 1990s but the creative messaging and media planning is making inroads on awareness among the under 30s and resparking interest for anyone older.
- Nearly 1900 Caltex stores will be rebranded Ampol by 2022, just as US giant Chevron plans to rebrand the Puma retail network it acquired to Caltex. Confused? Marketing might help.
Old school, new target
Old people remember Ampol – they grew up with it. Even older people will remember it as the Australian Motorists Petrol Company. But now the brand must sink roots with the under 30s and position itself for a future with no petrol - electric and hydrogen service stations are taking over.
For the short term agenda, Ampol has got a cool retro logo if nothing else, and if the mullet and ‘tache can conquer all before them, there’s always hope.
To drive the relaunch – Ampol is sinking a reported $160m into relaunching and rebranding 1900 Caltex service stations by next year - the company has opted for Australiana – but it’s crowded territory. Coles recently landed on ‘value the Australian way’ and Saatchis’ creative chief Mike Spirkovski says a virtually identical phrase was at one time in the mix for what has since become Ampol's ‘far and wide’ tag line.
Nevertheless, so far, so good. Backed by major media spend, Ampol’s big brand campaign is landing with both young and old, claims Chief Brand Officer Jenny O'Regan. Brand health metrics are miles ahead of schedule and the emotive campaign template – think possibilities, not petrol – is now being adapted to underline technical credentials of fuels developed specifically for Australia and its demanding climate: Engines enable road trips and the brand engine is now also delivering some performance lifting.
Given Australia doesn’t look like opening up any time soon, Ampol appears to have an open road ahead – and the approach seems to be landing. Chief Brand Officer Jenny O'Regan claims it proves Australians “do care” about Australian-ness: “We're seeing it not only in our results, but also in the brand recognition, in the brand love that's coming out with that.”
She won’t share the numbers, but says Ampol’s Q2 ‘brand health debrief’ suggests “from an awareness and preference perspective, we’re tracking ahead of forecast… and it’s undoubtedly the campaign in market that has driven that.” She claims: “We have been recognised as the most iconically Aussie brand in our industry”.
Meanwhile, O’Regan is now using the next phase of the emotive campaign to underline the technical credentials of fuels custom-designed for the unique rigours of Australian roads and environs. Who said brand campaigns can’t also drive performance?
First forecourts, then ads
Ampol was formed in 1936 in response to price gouging from foreign owned rivals. After it merged with Caltex in 1995, the company ditched Ampol and took on the Caltex brand, continuing to use it under licence following Chevron’s divestment in 2015. But Chevron terminated that agreement in 2019, leaving the brand having to rethink or face annual licence fees reported to be $20m.
Hence the relaunch commencing last August, rebranding the first of 1,900 Caltex forecourts. It has now managed about 400, according to O’Regan, Completing another 1,500 by the end of 2022 is no mean feat – but she says every retail outlet is critical.
“It's where the rubber hits the road from a brand perspective; our front line operations team has been absolutely integral in the delivery of the brand,” says O’Regan.
“It's one thing to have the brand assets and this beautiful campaign. But if customer experiences aren’t what we promise it to be when they walk onto out forecourts, then it kind of all falls down.”
So far, she says the promise is being delivered. “I think that's what customers are really resonating with. They feel this renewed rejuvenation of the brand and they're experiencing, this great energy from our stores when they walk in. So I think that it's a powerful combination that's really propelling this brand forward.”
I don’t think anyone is driving into a service station going ‘awesome, I’m going to drop $120 on a tank of fuel’. But look at where that $120 takes you.
The “grudge” budger
That said, it’s a stretch to imagine people getting too excited about spending cash to fill up their cars, no matter how good the brand promise, admits Saatchi & Saatchi National Chief Creative Officer, Mike Spirkovski.
The trick is to reframe “a grudge purchase” into the possibilities it enables.
“I don’t think anyone is driving into a service station going ‘awesome, I’m going to drop $120 on a tank of fuel’,” he says. “But look at where that $120 takes you.”
That approach has steered Saatchis’ creative interpretation – and Spirkovski, who brought in young and old heads to crack the brief, thinks that’s why the relaunch campaign is resonating so strongly with Australians locked into their country, yet desperate to travel.
“People can’t go overseas, they are traveling thousands of kilometres [within Australia], so that’s where we landed … bringing to life the physical benefit of getting out there on the road and reminding people that getting in your car and traveling… is a thing that we all want to do… Bringing back the road trip – because, let's face it, we've stopped doing that ever since Jetstar and everyone came with cheap flights to Bali.
“Similarly, a lot of kids have really embraced the road trip. Part of life in Australia is that you get you get to 18, 19, and the first thing you do is jump on a plane and go to Europe. But you can't do that now and the conditions we find ourselves in may be here for years.”
What was beautiful about the product advertising is it still connects really well to the broad strategic territory around 'far and wide'. Being able to bring those technical benefits to life in a more emotive way than we might have been able to do before has been a key benefit for us.
Spirkovski commends the business “for going for the emotional way and not focusing too hard on the product.” But Ampol’s Jenny O’Regan says it cuts both ways: The product now becomes integral to the brand – and the campaign’s next iteration focuses on the journeys undertaken by the engine, highlighting the technical, functional aspects of fuels designed specifically for Australia.
“What was beautiful about the product advertising is it still connects really well to the broad strategic territory around far and wide. So still unlocking journeys, but instead of the person and their journey, it's the perspective of the car and the car’s journey – close and intimate shots of engines and car performance, which has allowed us to bring out the technical specification of the products and tell that story, but still fitting within the campaign,” says O’Regan.
“It has meant that we've got this emotional connectivity from a brand perspective, but also an emotional connection around a product which as Mike says is a grudge purchase for people,” she adds. “Being able to bring those technical benefits to life in a more emotive way than we might have been able to do before has been a key benefit for us.”
Ampol has so far been using the likes of Spotify and Youtube, to connect with younger audiences, plus partnerships starting in the coming weeks with platforms including Twitch, Pedestrian and TikTok, according to iProspect’s Jason Smith.
Meanwhile, it has hired comedian Mel Buttle to give a take on what journeys mean to her.
“So it's not just been about putting ads in market, it's about bringing this whole concept to life,” he says. “But we’re not going to launch [Ampol] in six months. We’re getting started, but there is continued commitment from the business to keep going … not only for this year, but the next year and beyond.”
Big oil faces huge headwinds over the coming decades as investors and governments attempt to decarbonise in a bid to avert catastrophic climate change. Meanwhile, some carmakers have committing to stop using combustion engines altogether within the next decade.
While it’s clearly a challenge for any fossil fuel company to make customers love its brand, especially younger people, Ampol says it is delivering what Australians need now, investing in the alternatives that will power journeys in the future (it has committed to becoming net zero by 2040, though this does not cover upstream and downstream supply chain emissions).
While electric vehicles currently make up barely 1 per cent of new car sales in Australia, Ampol plans to roll out 100 EV charging sites by the end of 2022. “We'll be deepening that footprint… so that we can keep powering people's journeys, whether that's a fuel product that people will need for quite a bit of time yet or an electricity product in terms of what their energy needs are,” says O’Regan.
“We will keep expanding, we've also got our sights set on hydrogen and what we can do to support bigger vehicles in hydrogen, gas, and biofuels. As a business, it's exciting to be part of not only unlocking the brand, but also helping to shape and redefine what this brand will mean to customers as we continue to evolve into the future.”
Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Anthony Gregorio hopes to be around – professionally and otherwise – to see that vision through. In the meantime, Ampol is thinking about “what Australians need first”, he suggests.
“That is something that did play heavily into the brand positioning, because Ampol thinks about Australia in all of its decision-making around retail environments, current fuel strategy and future fuel strategy – and that is the exciting thing about this project,” he says. “Whereas the other tier one fuel brands don’t think about Australia first. They don’t think about Australia at all.”
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