Gaz Métro: What a gas

Few companies have undergone as rapid and radical a change in positioning - and with such immediate success - as Gaz Métro. The weird thing is it's not a clothing company or an entertainment property where reinvention comes and goes with the change in seasons. Gaz Métro is a gas company. A boring old utility. Or at least it was until Montreal-based agency Diesel got ahold of it. For getting Quebecers to rediscover and love a stodgy old fuel company, Gaz Métro gets marketer of the year honours.

Few companies have undergone as rapid and radical a change in positioning – and with such immediate success – as Gaz Métro. The weird thing is it’s not a clothing company or an entertainment property where reinvention comes and goes with the change in seasons. Gaz Métro is a gas company. A boring old utility. Or at least it was until Montreal-based agency Diesel got ahold of it. For getting Quebecers to rediscover and love a stodgy old fuel company, Gaz Métro gets marketer of the year honours.

While the Montreal-based utility has had residential customers for much of its 45-year history, there was a 10-year stretch between 1988 and 1998 where it had effectively abandoned that market to the much more powerful and widely used Hydro Quebec.

It was easy to do because, unlike in the rest of Canada, gas has historically had a stigma attached to it as being dangerous. In fact, Gaz Métro’s research indicated 50% of Quebecers were ‘afraid of gas.’ So when a combination of business moves (a new president, Robert Pessier) and natural disaster (a crippling 1998 ice storm that knocked out electrical power to parts of the province) occurred. Gaz Métro was moved to re-enter the residential market.

It went in

with the ‘old look’ Gaz Métro (then called Gaz Métropolitan), orange trucks and all, but changed the way it operated internally so as to be able to deliver service properly to its potential consumers. By 2003, it was ready for the last part of its phoenix-like transformation: changing its image.

The key problem remained overcoming Quebecers’ ingrained fear of gas and additional research indicating most people simply had no opinion one way or the other about Gaz Métro itself, says Nathalie Maurer, the utility’s manager, Web and marketing communications. ‘The only thing they knew about was the spectacular accident you read about in a newspaper even though it might only happen once in many years,’ she says. That had to change and, after choosing Diesel from a field of three competing agencies, it did.

Gaz Métro changed its name (to the hipper, shorter version), its logo, its look, its collateral, and even its style of internal communications. While Diesel spearheaded most of this, in fact Gaz Métro had already been looking at changing its name and logo. But it was the agency that came up with the actual iconography as captured by a simple blue flame.

But perhaps just as revolutionary was the decision to appeal to consumers not on the basis of rationality but on emotion and to eschew presenting gas as an either/or proposition between Gaz Métro and Hydro Quebec. Philippe Meunier, CD at Diesel, says his team immediately recognized that trying to get people to overcome an irrational fear of gas was like doing the same with spiders. ‘So instead of trying to explain that gas isn’t dangerous, we said: ‘Okay, let’s put this aside.’ We said: ‘Let’s make it more approachable, more like a friend and give it a personality that you can almost fall in love with. Instead of talking about the efficiency or the cost of the gas, we said: ‘Why don’t we just live with this kind of energy?”

That insight formed the basis for the engaging ‘la vie en bleu’ (life in blue) campaign (launched September 2003) that Maurer says has Quebecers talking, Gaz Métro’s orders pouring in and a recent Cassie in both client and agency’s pocket. The simple TV spots feature an animated blue flame dancing to music with a super referencing gas appliances like water heaters or dryers. ‘That little flame is saying something,’ explains Meunier, ‘but not saying something about the security of the gas. It’s all about living with the gas – cooking with the gas, taking a bath with the gas.’

Maurer adds: ‘Our goal wasn’t to say: ‘Buy natural gas.’ Our goal was to say: ‘We are natural gas and we are interesting, relaxing and modern.”

That same ethic was applied to the rest of the redesign work Diesel did for the company. Diesel dumped the orange motif (too reminiscent of danger and firetrucks coming to quell gas explosions) in favour of a soft blue it applied to all Gaz Métro communications material, both external and internal, changed the logo to a modern, friendly-looking flame icon and insisted the colour of the trucks (only recently repainted orange) be painted blue. Today, it wouldn’t be impossible to mistake Gaz Métro for some hip new energy source humanity has only just discovered.

Even the items (e.g. shower curtains, travel mugs, etc.) sold internally to employees have been redesigned with sleek lines in shades of blue and turquoise. Some items are currently being considered for sale to the public via the Web site because of the popularity of the campaign. The transformation extends to the company’s internal communications as well. Maurer says Gaz Métro has developed guidelines for standardizing the language used within the company and when talking to consumers. For example, language is kept simple and to avoid overuse of the word ‘blue,’ rules exist for its use along with suggestions for alternatives.

This wasn’t done for its own sake, says Maurer. Different operations within the company, from PR to public affairs were all ‘doing their own thing’ and failing to present a consistent face to the brand. ‘There was no link between what we were doing. So at the end of the year we took everything that we had printed and put it on a table and found there was no way you could say: ‘Oh, that’s Gaz Métro.’ There wasn’t a unique image throughout.’

That has certainly changed in a big way and the utility seems to have the results to prove it. For a first year spend of $2.5 million, Gaz Métro has seen its ‘likability’ among consumers go from 79% to 85%. It also smashed through its goal of achieving 3,000 sales in the residential housing market come September 2004. Total to date: 4,362 or 45% above target.

Is the number of consumers who remain afraid of gas falling yet? The research isn’t complete, says Maurer, ‘but we really think so because of [indications] we’ve had throughout the year. We do a lot of home shows and with the first one we did after launching the campaign, people had a different attitude when they were coming into our stand. We were amazed. Before that people would ask a lot of questions about security and now they were saying: ‘Okay, I want gas. How does it work?”