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Why are we failing to convince consumers of the need for high quality lubricants?

By Aaron Stone

A shift towards higher performing, more efficient lubricants is happening, and will most certainly be required. The changing landscape of globalisation, increasing regulatory impacts, and a push to deliver improvements in air quality, are accelerating technological advancements in vehicle hardware and lubrication.

Speaking at F+L Week 2017, at The Four Seasons Hotel in Singapore recently, Matthew Joyce, vice president, Global Sales at Lubrizol Additives, delivered a presentation on the next frontier of lubricants entitled ‘The Drive For Higher Performing Higher Value Lubricants.’ A central theme of Joyce’s address were a number of key end-user challenges, most prominent, the need to educate consumers on the value of high quality lubricants.

This challenge is not new. Perhaps ironically, Alan Thomas, Lubrizol’s former vice president for Asia, delivered a similar message at the Fuels & Lubes Asia Conference almost two decades ago. Has nothing really changed since 1998? Why are we still struggling to convince consumers of the benefits of higher quality lubricants?

Lubrizol has recently taken the time and effort to better understand consumer needs, conducting an end-user study in the growing Indonesian market, a top 10 consumer of finished lubricants globally. The study confirmed the scale of the issue. 79% of consumers had already made their decision on engine oil prior to arriving at the workshop. Only 21% selected their lubricants after walking in the door, presumably with assistance from a trained service representative.

Respondents cited several key influences on engine oil selection. 64% relied on advice from family or friends. 45% were brand loyal, selecting on the basis of using a particular brand previously. Approximately one-third depended on advertising to inform their decision, and less than 15% referenced the recommendation in the owner’s handbook as a source of information.

These results potentially raise more questions than answers. What are ‘family and friends’ basing their recommendation on? Do they have any expertise in the field of engine oils? And most importantly, was the correct oil chosen for a particular vehicle?

Consumers “cannot continue using yesterday’s lubricant technology,” says Joyce. “We must take advantage of the significant opportunity to influence and upgrade consumer buying behaviours to deliver real world performance.” Selecting the correct engine oil and continuing to use it throughout the life of a vehicle is in the interests of the consumer, vehicle and retailer, and provides wider societal benefits of improved fuel efficiency, he says.

So why, in a period of unprecedented marketing budgets and resources, innovative advertising, and communications that are increasingly personalised (bordering on intrusive) are we struggling to deliver relevant messages to consumers involved in a purchase decision? Several forces may be inhibiting our ability to effectively educate the market.

Certainly, the industry is undergoing a rapid period of advancement. The global vehicle fleet is forecast to grow from 1.1 billion to an astonishing 2 billion by 2030. Growth is fuelled by continued expansion in the Asian markets. China is projecting that 24 million cars will be produced and sold in 2020, up from a miniscule 700,000 at the turn of the century.

Accompanying this exponential rise in vehicle population is the trend towards improved fuel efficiency. New passenger cars continue to evolve technically to deliver substantial emissions reductions, adhering to new legislation and owing to technological advancements by OEMs.

Matthew Joyce presenting at F+L Week 2017During his keynote address, Joyce explained how lubricants directly contribute to fuel economy, emissions reductions and durable operation of new hardware, detailing a migration towards lighter viscosity and lower SAPS lubricants. He says, evaluating lubricant performance will become even more challenging and needs to be more aligned with real world performance in the future.

It seems keeping up with the new frontier of lower viscosity, higher performance lubricants is difficult, even for those familiar with the industry.

So, is the ingrained complexity of the industry the principal stumbling block? Certainly, the path to certification is intricate. During a presentation in April last year, at the Biannual Detroit Advisory Panel, Dan Sheets, senior vice president of Lubrizol Corp. and president of Lubrizol Additives, suggested the standards are set up to yield minimum quality specifications, inhibiting efforts to deliver marketable benefits and value to all.

Sheets believes complexity, and the minimum quality approach, prevents deployment of innovative solutions, as the industry can’t keep pace with the required rate of change. It’s possibly no surprise then end-users struggle to comprehend the performance benefits of what they are purchasing.

Sheets proposed the establishment of a stakeholder governance body, and a tiered specification model to provide consumers performance-based options. He also called for further exploration on paths to educate consumers on lubricant performance.

Looking at tomorrow’s market, Joyce says “there remains significant opportunity for our industry to deliver value to the marketplace.   By continuing to raise the performance of the lubricants, our customers, society, and the industry benefit as a whole.”