Royal Dutch Shell has emerged once again as the overwhelming favorite in the daring, high-octane game of three-way petrochicken being played between science, ethics, and innovation in the marketing of retail motor fuels. Coming on the heels of Shell's blockbuster "V-Power" campaign, the energy behemoth's mysterious and apparently scientific new product has literally exploded onto the scene. At a recent industry banquet in Baton Rouge the general sense of shock and awe was palpable, and senior marketing personnel were not mincing words.
"It's like they're kicking us when we're down," said Gus Fangut, Senior Direct Sales Project Manager at Valero Energy in Houston, TX. "They're charging for nitrogen. They're telling people, 'hey, give us money, and we'll give you nitrogen.'"
"And it's working!" added Kathleen Vienneduct, Vice President of Marketing at Chevron, Inc. in Richmond, CA. "How do you follow that?"
What impressed industry observers most about Shell's "V-Power" campaign was their decision to include the new additive only in motor gasoline of the highest octane, and then to advertise this option right at the pump.
"So when you go to fill up, if you want to be like the happy fish people on the TV, even if you're driving an '82 Escort, you're going to spring for the good stuff," Vienneduct explained "And you'll be damned if you don't feel a little extra spring in her step as you drive off the lot."
"But it's all in your head," Fangut added,
Vienneduct went on to explain that gasoline is a generic product in the United States. The only thing that brands it is the small amount of additive each company adds to the base fuel.
"The additive package is mostly detergent," she says. "Like, literally--soap--a petroleum-based soap." As a result, companies advertising a brand of gasoline can only make claims as to the superiority of its soap.
"We can't claim that it goes faster, burns hotter, bangs bigger, what-have-you. We can only claim that it cleans good. It's very limiting."
And since burning fuel with a higher-than-required octane will not harm an engine, Shell is in the clear. "There's no risk to the consumer's vehicle," Fangut explains. "The only thing it breaks is your bank account."
What really made the brand successful, according to Vienneduct, was the ad campaign. "It was their coup de grace. This very genuine-sounding announcer tells you that this fuel 'actively' cleans your engine, as if this is some sort of innovation."
"What does that even mean?" Fangut said. "What does it do, grab onto your valve seats and bust out a loofa? It's a fucking molecule!"
So will "Nitrogen Enriched" gasoline enjoy the same kind of success?
"Probably," said Phillip Maelipeck, Valero's President of Refining Technology. "It sounds great. It sounds bubbly, powerful and sciencey."
"It's a joke," Fangut said.
"It's genius," said Maelipeck.