As Shell shifts spend to target younger drivers, it is leaning on its agencies more than ever

Shell's latest campaign features actor Brent Bailey

Shell has begun to diversify its media plan in order to reach a car-owning population now dominated by millennials. To move quickly with this maturing audience, it’s built a model that prizes the strategic expertise of its agencies as much as the knowledge of its in-house scientists.

Eschewing the trend for pulling more marketing functions in-house, Shell – which is now positioning itself as a mobility brand rather than a fuel retailer – is still committed to nurturing its relationship with the shops on its ‘agency of the future’ roster.

The brand completed a significant overhaul of its global partner list last July, naming MediaCom as its media planning and buying agency of record and dividing creative duties among the likes of VCCP, Wunderman Thompson and Mirum.

The latter has created its latest integrated campaign, which communicates the premium capabilities of its V-Power Nitro+ fuel via actor and first-time Shell spokesperson, Brent Bailey.

The creative was driven by the insight that the company’s consumer base is skewing younger.

“It’s millennials that are buying more cars than any other segment that's out there – they’re fourth of the car-buying population and they buy about 30% of fuels in total, and and 35% of the premium category,” said Shannon Bryan, head of North America Fuels Marketing at Shell.

“When we were digging into that insight, we realized they were changing cars every 10-12 years, keeping them longer and getting the most out of them, [so] really want something that's going to protect their engine.”

The company has been grappling with the behaviors of this millennial demographic for a while now. Dan Little, the general manager for Shell Oil Products’ North America marketing, recalls the decision to shift media spend to digital came roughly 10 years ago.

Now, the brand is investing around 40% of its overall spend online, according to Little, and has taken a ubiquitous approach to which platforms it advertises on.

“I just think we have to be in a lot of [channels]," he said. “We’ve got to be everywhere, and we need to reach everything."

The brand, which used to rely “completely” on agencies to execute on such channels, is currently building out the digital capabilities of its internal marketing team. But this isn’t in preparation of any secret in-housing plot – it’s to make sure Shell is the best client it can be when it comes to writing briefs.

Little refers to Shell’s in-house team as “the quarterback” and its agency roster as its “front line”, its “voice of continuity”. And in its quest to get up to speed with a millennial customer base, the advertiser team has been relying more on agencies to bring them competitor analysis at speed, as well as up-to-the-minute, global research into how younger consumers interact with brands.

“There's been so much consolidation in this industry,” he said. “So now, when it looks like you’re working with one agency, you're able to draw on a whole load of resources – areas you didn't know they had. I think it works for us because we do have different needs that are always changing, and it seems the agencies are acquiring different competencies. It seems to work for us. “

Shell has also begun to bring in agency partners much further up the product development pipeline. It regularly sits them in a room with its scientists to foster a symbiotic relationship: the agencies advise the scientists on what kinds of products will help Shell stand out on the forecourt, while scientists help the agencies clearly demonstrate product benefits at a campaign level.

These efforts are taking place as change looms in on the automotive industry. While Little argues that “automobile sales are driven by millennials”, Goldman Sachs predicts 25% of all cars sold will have electric engines by 2025, and reported millennials’ willingness to car share to be higher than any other generation.

Shell’s response is to think in the short- and long-term, guided by its newfound purpose as a “mobility retailer”. It’s experimenting with a B2B and direct-to-consumer product, which will allow drivers to order fuel directly to their home or office, and it has also begun to integrate its loyalty scheme, Fuel Rewards, into third-party partnerships with brands such as T-Mobile and General Motors.

At the same time, it has injected a substantial amount of cash into publicizing its developments in electric charging and renewable fuels.

“We would not be a good steward of the company to just stick our head in the sand and say, ‘oh it's only going to be internal, combustible engines and we're going to live and die by that,” said Bryan. “We don't ever want to be a brand that looks up and goes, ‘we've been leapfrogged’.

“We want to be leading the pack – that's our mantra and our equity.”

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