Sunoco is back

After four years of keeping a low profile, Sunoco is back on the fast track with a new advertising campaign that tweaks the tail of the tiger.The small regional oil company with 450 corporate-owned and franchised outlets in Ontario and Quebec...

After four years of keeping a low profile, Sunoco is back on the fast track with a new advertising campaign that tweaks the tail of the tiger.

The small regional oil company with 450 corporate-owned and franchised outlets in Ontario and Quebec is riding the wave of rival Imperial Oil’s massive advertising push for its high-octane gasoline with a small budget campaign telling the public that Sunoco has the ‘highest octane on the street.’

In March, Esso, Imperial’s retail arm, upgraded its premium product from a 91- to a 92-octane level and has been advertising the benefits of high octane fuel since then.

For about three years before the Esso launch, oil companies had been concentrating on image rather than octane in their advertising.

‘Esso is basically implying through their messages that they are the leader in that area,’ says John Ozikizler, manager of retail marketing for Sunoco, based in North York, Ont.

‘Esso is also educating the public through mass media advertising about the benefits of high octane,’ Ozikizler says.

‘As a small oil company, we didn’t have the power to do that,’ he says. ‘We thought this is great: they’re talking about octane again. Let’s ride that wave and tell people we’ve been the highest for years.

‘Use Esso’s awareness campaign and build on that.’

But, this is not the standard David and Goliath battle.

Sunoco is in a unique position.

It has a product that no other oil company doing business in Ontario and Quebec has – a premium gasoline with a 94-octane rating, Ultra 94, which entered the market in late 1992.

Some of the benefits of higher octane levels are that it that guarantees peak performances in vehicles more than one year old.

As well, it eliminates ‘knocking’ and ‘pinging’ in older cars, especially under conditions of high temperature, heavy loads, and where deposits have built up in the engine over time.

Sunoco used the slogan, ‘Highest octane on the street,’ when it launched Gold in 1988.

Ozikizler says that campaign gave Sunoco the biggest increase in high-octane sales it has ever had.

The campaign was created by Barry Base & Partners of Toronto, the same agency responsible for its current campaign, which runs to September, and will be followed by a fall wave, again focussing on Ultra 94.

The campaign consists of radio, billboards, pump toppers and other point-of-purchase material.

Creative features a graphic of a white shark with headlines such as ‘The biggest bite in octane.’

All the ads are tagged with ‘Ultra 94. The highest octane on the street.’

One execution features the shark emblazoned with a Sunoco logo snapping at the tail of a retreating tiger (Imperial Oil’s mascot for its Esso brand gasoline.) The copy reads: ‘Ultra 94, Tigers 92.’

A second poster features the shark nipping at three small fish wearing Esso, Shell and Petro-Canada logos. The headline is: ‘Just when you thought all octane levels were the same.’

A 30-second radio spot called ‘Shark Indy’ from Calexis Advertising of Toronto takes the same theme and ties it in with Sunoco’s affiliation with Molson Indy car racing.

Ozikizler says producing higher octane gasoline is an expensive, time-consuming process.

He credits the refining technology at Sunoco’s Sarnia, Ont. facility for giving the company the edge in the octane battle and enabling it to produce a higher octane product more efficiently than the competition.

The minimum Canadian standards for octane content as set by the Canadian General Standards Board is 87 for regular gasoline, 89 for mid-grade and 91 for premium.

Shell and Petro-Canada premium products are at 91 minimum, while Esso has 92.

‘It’s a niche we have in the business,’ Ozikizler says.

‘If Esso had the ability to produce a 94 or 95 product that would equal or surpass ours cost-effectively, I think they would have done it,’ he says.

‘They launched 92, which is only one octane level higher than the previous level, which was 91, but they spent tons of advertising dollars promoting it.

‘High octane is a tradition of Sunoco from the early ’60s when we had Sunoco 260, and progressed to Sunoco Gold [92 octane] in 1988, and then the launch of Ultra 94.

‘We’re not trying to create an advertising war. Our advertising has been aggressive, but we’re not claiming anything that’s untrue.’

Sunoco dropped out of the advertising scene in 1989 after the introduction of Sunoco Gold, a launch that began the gas wars, a series of legal and advertising battles between Sunoco and Shell Canada.

On the heels of Sunoco Gold, Shell brought out Shell Formula Bronze and Silver, as well as Shell Formula Gold, its premium with a minimum octane level of 91.

Sunoco felt Shell was purposely confusing the issue by letting the public believe all premium Gold products had the same octane rating.

Nothing came of the legal wrangling.

Sunoco became gun-shy, having put a lot of money into the development and marketing of Sunoco Gold, and backed away from its aggressive advertising stance.

The Esso campaign brought Sunoco back into the fray.

Ozikizler says the company’s focus will continue to be on Ultra 94 because 30% of its sales are of the premium product, while the industry sales average for premium is 18% to 20%.

He says the company has reassessed its retailing operation and is working to make each site more profitable by adding convenience stores and car washes where viable.

Like most of the other oil companies, Sunoco is getting out of its unprofitable locations, looking at each station as a standalone business.

Ozikizler says its 450 outlets, down from 900 in 1989, will be cut to between 260 and 300 by the end of the year, adding they will produce the same volume as the 600 locations the company had last year.