What do wave, blade, and koala have in common? Not much to anyone beyond the world of the new Esso Synergy branding, or more particularly the Pyott Agency, which developed the striking forecourt image for ExxonMobil, and came up with the names to describe its key features.
"We had great fun with the names," says agency founder James Pyott, whose company has a remit to be known as the world’s specialist in forecourt and backcourt design. With the Synergy branding going into more than 20,000 forecourt sites globally; another potentially global project underway in Australia; and the redesign of the prestigious MRH Park Lane Service Station forecourt completed last month, it can already claim that status.
The agency also has another significant string to its bow, through its ongoing relationship with Gerald Ronson, of Heron international, which operates Rontec: "I’ve worked with Gerald Ronson for the past 15 years," says Pyott, whose background includes working with Terence Conran, Habitat and Heals.
"We worked in Spain on all his big developments such as Heron cities. We’re very good at taking a space and making it attractive and relevant, and creating excitement through lighting, sound and image. We were able to put together some pretty impressive destinations. Our core strength was in creating a destination."
When Gerald Ronson bought the Total network in 2011, James Pyott was therefore a natural choice. "He approached me to create a new format to shake and rock the industry as to how the backcourts would look," explains Pyott. "I went round in the car with Gerald every Saturday for two years. I got up at 4.30 every morning. I travelled the UK for two years solidly. Mixed with my retail background and his love of petrol stations we had a kind of connection of minds whereby if you put an entrepreneur with a designer who understands what you’re trying to do, it’s a very powerful chemistry that creates a lot of innovation.
"I had to learn how petrol stations worked, and what was fascinating about them was how dynamic they were, how basic they were, but also how sophisticated they were. It’s a very unusual retail format about which you don’t really think twice. But it’s incredible how they work.
"You can turn customers on and off very quickly when you do things well. Gerald Ronson taught me all of that over those two years, and we applied those thoughts into the whole Rontec network."
Pyott came up with the Shop ’n Drive brand and put in place a whole series of shop formats there are around 220 of them now which covers both Snax 24 and the Total network.
"Still today those sites are cutting edge retail formats, both in terms of their look, and also how they sell and present their goods to the customer, using very aggressive retail techniques," says Pyott. "Our task was to get people from the pump to the till and to purchase products on the way, so it was a very calculated discipline. But we managed to achieve that and the Rontec network has increased shop sales by about 20% since the takeover of Total. That shows you that the public appreciates clean, well-run sites, and good pricing. They respond by making what was a grotty station - and has now become a lovely station part of their daily routine."
It was the Rontec connection that led to the Pyott Agency being assigned the Synergy project for ExxonMobil. "It was a lovely situation of being in the right place at the right time," says Pyott. "They wanted someone to deliver a future vision of how forecourts could be. Synergy is a 21st century product that needed a 21st century image. So we got the project and spent a couple of months coming up with lots of ideas, some extreme. We wanted the Synergy branding to be an architectural enhancement, rather than a bit of signage.
"The whole focus of every idea was to be able to take what is a diverse range of formats and make them look 21st century, so that when the innovative fuel brand came in, people would get that it looks good and would now feel comfortable buying in this environment. For example, you wouldn’t buy a Prada bag from Lidl it’s got to be the right surroundings."
ExxonMobil had spent a huge amount of time creating the Synergy fuel additive and they wanted people to realise that the product they were putting in their car was the best there is, explains Pyott: "You’re only going to do that if you create something that stops traffic, literally. The people at ExxonMobil felt the whole Synergy concept was a very innovative way to get people onto forecourts and to get them to realise that the whole Esso image and culture had changed.
They hit the brief on the head very quickly, according to Pyott, and ExxonMobil "fell in love with the idea that it was going to do something different and totally innovative".
"We did a huge amount of work to analyse all kinds of site format every site is different and came back with a system focused around the Synergy brand, to cover all the options."
With Esso’s backup and structure Pyott has had access to a global resource, which has been really good at taking the designs and tweaking them to fit each particular problem.
"The big sites with the starting gate formations and the ’waves’ over the top look amazing, and the whole concept behind the wave our inspiration from day one was, that these bits of signage were meant to highlight the pump, but also to have a connection with the car, so from a design point of view the whole language is about ’I’m a car’, and that’s why we have LED lights, like the headlights on all the modern luxury cars.
"It’s also made out of metallic ABS plastic, which again reflects the bumpers on luxury cars; and the detailing of how it’s all put together is like a premium car, so it’s not a big piece of plastic and metal signage any more. This now has the integrity of an iPhone, the same kind of design passion, commitment to detail and manufacturing, which is unheard of in the industry. We wanted it to be beautiful and for people to really appreciate that.
"We went round the world with ExxonMobil doing prototypes, to see how it works, and to test the customer feedback. In every market, customer feedback was ’wow, this is game changing’, which gave us the confidence to keep pushing the boundaries.
"Forecourts are becoming some of the best retail formats out there in terms of providing customer needs. The public do want great design, and they do appreciate it, but they don’t get it very often.
"The work we’ve done for both Rontec and ExxonMobil gives us the confidence to go ’this is just the start’, we can be even more innovative and more imaginative by taking environments and spaces and brands, and challenging convention."