Courting millennials, Shell, Phillips 66 turn to social media influencers

When car enthusiast John Hennessey started a YouTube channel more than a decade ago, he just wanted his Sealy auto modification shop to keep up with the times.

Fast forward 12 years and Hennessey’s social media presence has exploded to 340,000 YouTube subscribers and 1 million Instagram followers watching his mechanics modify high-end cars and trucks to go ridiculously fast. Hennessey, who describes himself as the“Chief Horsepower Evangelist” at his company, rubs elbows with famous Indy 500 and NASCAR drivers at automotive industry events.

Hennessy’s own race to fame has been fueled in part by his partnership with one of the biggest oil companies in the world, Royal Dutch Shell, which provides money, connections, technical consultations and supplies the motor oil — Shell’s Pennzoil brand — his shop can use. In exchange Hennessy’s company promotes Shell and its products to its vast and growing legion of followers. A quarter-mile track where Hennessey Performance films test drives has been renamed the “Pennzoil Proving Grounds Performance Track” so Shell’s lubricant gets a nod every time a drag racing video is posted, and each video can garner 200,000 views or more.

Hennessey, 56, is one of 40 people that Shell supports as social media influencers who provide a way to showcase the company’s gasoline, motor oil and other products by tapping into niche audiences from car enthusiasts to travel junkies and commuters. As Shell’s campaign shows, social media influencers – people with large following on social media who get paid to promote products – are no longer reserved for just 20-somethings posting about sneakers or makeup.

Shell is among the few energy companies that have adopted the nontraditional marketing technique that analysts say is particularly important for reaching what may be considered the nation’s biggest and most important demographic — millennials and Generation Z. These younger generations are more suspicious of businesses’ motives in general and companies peddling fossil fuels in particularly, surveys show.

Social media influencers, however, can help companies burnish their images with millennials and Gen Z by allowing companies to tap into powerful word-of-mouth marketing, analysts say. Like following advice from a friend, marketing surveys suggest many people tend to listen to product advice from social media accounts they follow.

“Using social media influencer marketing as part of our overall marketing allows us to be trusted voice,” said Megan Nicodemus, head of digital and social marketing for Shell’s retail business. “For generations that have grown up with social media, this influencer program is very important.”

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While millennials care about climate change, they still drive. And although they may be more likely to use Uber, Lyft and public transportation, car ownership among this generation isn’t significantly lower than previous generations, a 2019 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests. Most drivers chose their gasoline or lubricants based on convenience or price, making building brand loyalty a challenge for companies such as Shell. That’s where influencers can play a role, Nicodemus said.

Take Shell’s influencer Sai Yerraguntla a 24-year old engineer who has built a following of nearly 84,000 Instagram users while posting about her love of sports cars. Yerraguntla regularly test drives high-end cars such as Lamborghinis for San Francisco area dealerships and posts pictures of cars at Shell gas stations around California. She promotes Shell’s premium fuel — it’s the only gas she puts in her own Ferrari, she says — and explains to her followers why exotic cars need higher quality gas.

Her business partner, Omar Dawood, 46, said she avoids being too pushy.

“We don’t sell it. We just show why we use (Shell fuel) every day,” Dawood said. Dawood and Yerraguntla say they are paid by Shell,but they also get other benefits, such as meeting race car drivers at the Indy 500 race.

But influencers aren’t just about promoting specific products – companies also are looking to influencers to help shape consumer sentiment about their brands.

Houston refiner Phillips 66 says it uses its influencers to create an image for its gasoline brands, which sell at stations under the names Phillips 66, Conoco and, on the West Coast, 76. Their social media program started in 2015 with a partnership with professional surfer Kelia Moniz and three friends who took a road trip to hit surfing spots in California and stopped at 76 gas stations along the way.

This year, Phillips 66 partnered with a suburban dad blogger,The Rookie Dad, on his family road trip to the Big 12 basketball championship in Missouri, stopping to post pictures at Phillips 66 stations. After a handful of successful influencer campaigns, Phillips 66 is now building a network of influencers to post a more steady stream of content regularly.

Other energy companies have used social media influencers too. Exxon Mobil ran an influencer campaign to promote its SpeedPass app last year. And Chevron Corp. has partnered with professional soccer player Brandi Chastain to promote its sponsored Chevron Soccer Academy on social media and worked with popular Youtuber and host of PBS’ BrainCraft , Vanessa Hill, to post from its Chevron STEM Zone science education events. But Shell’s burgeoning influence program appears to be unique among energy companies in both its scale and scope.

Tying brands to influencers, however, carries risks,said Chris Ferris, who teaches digital marketing at Rice University and works as vice president of digital strategy at the public relations firm Pierpont Communications. Companies need to vet influencers, which can add to the costs, and they must be wary of influencers who may try to boost their follower count by buying fake followers or post something controversial that could reflect poorly on their brands, Ferris said.

“Our research shows that there’s so much information readily available that people can see through things that are not true or things that seem false,” said Sarah Bolding, Senior Director of Brand Advertising at Phillips 66. “So, if you present yourselves in an authentic way and collaborate with others in an authentic way, then hopefully that helps to provide a means of gaining trust with consumer,”

Social media influencer campaigns can be pricey. Depending on their follower count and how often followers engage with their content, influencers can charge anywhere from a $100 a post to $550,000 a post for a top celebrity influencer, according to the digital marketing company Hubspot. Shell and Phillips 66 declined to say how much they spend on influencers.

But they say their campaigns are working, based on on the likes, comments, reposts, click-through rates to websites and software that measures public sentiment on social media about their brands. A recent Phillips 66 campaign with four micro-influencers, for example, generated about 5,000 engagements — likes, shares and comments — and 200 new users for its mobile pay app, Bolding said.

Even Shell’s poster boy influencer poster Hennessey hasn’t been immune to controversy. A few years ago, Hennessey was the target of negative articles and comments on auto enthusiast websites after disgruntled former employees and upset customers complained about his shop. Hennessey said those complaints stemmed from an old business partner who has since left the business.

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Since then, Hennessey said, he has had plenty of happy customers. His shop services about 30 to 40 cars a week and revenue is up about 50 percent since he first partnered with Shell in 2014.

A couple years ago while passing through customs control on a trip to an auto show in Geneva, the customs representative in Switzerland checking his passport recognized Hennessey’s name from Instagram.

“The passport officer was like, ‘Oh yeah, I follow you guys on Instagram,” Hennessey recalled with a chuckle. “I think for us as far as our advertising strategy is really simple. Whatever we put out in whatever medium, whether it’s YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, you name it, it has to be interesting. It has to be exciting. We’re not going to grow our social media by appearing to be like paid spokespeople.”

Hennesey’s next exciting project? Building an exotic sports car that can go 300 miles per an hour called the Venom F5. Expect to see the project documented on YouTube. And yes it will speed down the track fueled by Shell products.

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