All successful businesses understand that branding is important. Your brand is what customers envision when they think of your business. It’s your calling card, so to speak, and the basis for most of your public perception or how you are thought of and conceptualised by your consumer base. Good branding is why massive businesses are household names, and is key to a small business’s ability to stake a successful foothold in the market.

The importance of branding is true for petrol stations as well, though the conversation takes a unique turn when it comes to deciding exactly how to brand your petrol station. Unlike other businesses, petrol stations have the option to pair with big corporations such as Ampol, BP, or Shell to brand their business, or try to carve out their own space in the market. Both options offer differing points of appeal, but before you make your decision, it’s important to understand exactly why branding, and brand recognition, is so crucial to success.

Like it or not, your petrol station is often only as successful as its branding. A good brand equates to a good reputation, sets you apart from competition, and makes you memorable to your customer base. People want to visit places that they recognise, where they have a pretty good idea of what to expect in their visit. An effective brand guarantees that both of those things ring true for your customer base. Essentially, good branding directly results in brand recognition.

But why exactly does brand recognition matter so much? And why should you be concerned with it as the owner of a petrol station? The answer is simple.

As mentioned, people want to visit places that they recognise and are comfortable with. This is because brand recognition generates brand trust. Brand trust is what customers rely on when making choices about purchases, including where to refuel. Given an option between a petrol station with a brand they’ve never heard of and one with a name they’ve been hearing their entire life, customers are far more likely to pull into the petrol station with which they have established brand trust.

A quick look into the logistics of the rebranding of some of Australia’s largest fuel sellers reveals that this concept, brand trust, remains crucial even when major rebranding changes are made. In 2018 Woolworths sold its 540 service station locations to EG for $1.72 billion. This marked a huge change for customer bases who may have been loyally visiting Woolworths service stations for perks and aspects they closely associated with the Woolworths brand.

Customers refueling at a Woolworths petrol station knew that the brand offered Woolworths Rewards points to be earned at the pump, as well as a 4¢ a litre fuel discount. These perks were part of the Woolworths service station brand. To make sure that they maintained brand trust, EG allowed for Woolworths to negotiate these perks into their sale, retaining what makes them attractive to customers who will now attribute these same service station benefits with the new EG branding. The message this sends is clear: even when you are at the top, maintaining consistent and clear branding is imperative to continued success and the trust of your customers.

Keeping in mind the importance of brand trust and recognition, it’s unsurprising that the decision of how to brand your petrol station can easily become your top priority. Currently, two options are available for petrol station owners: partner with a larger fuel corporation, or carve yourself a place in the competitive market through commitment and hard work.

The first option is attractive to many petrol station operators, and for good reason. When you pair with a massive cooperation such as BP, most of the legwork in developing your own brand is done. A name like BP is instantly recognisable to almost every prospective customer, associating your business with this kind of trustworthy reputation is instant where an independent brand may take years to establish. Most of the marketing for your petrol station has already been done, and this partnership gives you access to widespread marketing and advertising campaigns that would otherwise be financially difficult for independent owners. Additionally, you are protected should fuel shortages arise.

Of course, this partnership isn’t always perfect. Big branded petrol retailers will charge more for their product to cover this inherent big budget marketing which results in their notoriety. You also lose the chance to mold your service station to your own specifications. There is less room to be creative with your brand, and you automatically adopt whatever brand recognition, trust, and reputation is already associated with your partner. You also are more or less at the mercy of branding changes made by your partner.

For example, just before Christmas last year, US Oil company Chevron terminated its licensing agreement with Caltex, rendering them unable to continue under the Caltex name. Because of this, they began the expensive process of rebranding as Ampol, a change which was effective for all service stations branded as Caltex. These kinds of major branding changes are never completely out of the question, and choosing to partner with big brands means you agree to go along with them.

Through our ServoPro membership I work with many Caltex distributors who have spent most of 2020 rebranding their entire business. This has been an enormous task and they have had to do this to comply with decisions made not by them but by larger corporations.

For some operators, this loss of brand autonomy is enough incentive to try and carve a place in the market themselves. The ability to build your brand from the ground up, choose what you’d like to be known for, and develop a uniquely loyal customer base are all exciting perks of creating your own brand. Of course, this process is hard work and is often more challenging than a partnership but can be hugely rewarding when done successfully.

If you intend on using your own brand at your petrol station, it’s important to understand how to brand yourself successfully. Identify your voice as a business, understand what key messages you want your customers to retain from their experience at your petrol station, and make sure they are emphasised. If you want to be associated with exemplary customer service, make sure your employees are trained and have all the tools necessary to excel in the work environment you’ve created. If you have unique ideas for promotions, or plan to carry products that will separate you from the competition, find a way to work this messaging into your branding.

In the era of social media, small businesses can have broader reach than ever before, even without the massive funding available to bigger businesses. From Facebook to Instagram, generating a reliable social media presence can bring awareness to your brand not just in your local community, but outside of your immediate area as well. This broader reach will establish brand recognition outside of your immediate locale and bring people to your petrol station over your competition.

Deciding to operate independently can be an exciting challenge, but it is a challenge nonetheless. Given the opportunity to build your own brand, it is crucial that you take the chance and really run with it. A well developed brand will be the difference between success and failure in a market that is saturated so heavily by big names.

At the end of the day, whether you decide to partner with another company or use your own ideas, your service station will likely only be as successful as the brand it is built upon. Successful branding builds brand recognition. This brand recognition means brand trust, and brand trust translates to a loyal customer base. If you’re going to succeed in this market, that’s exactly what you need.

This article was written by Dan Armes, Founder of ServoPro, for the December/January issue of Convenience & Impulse Retailing Magazine.

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