Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Keeping the Union 76 Balls

The Wall Street Journal this weekend had an interesting tale of the Union 76 ball, an example of which can be seen in the Dodger Stadium parking lot from the stadium seats. (I apologize for the long post, but since Dow Jones is pretty stingy about releasing its content, I can't link.) In a nutshell, the article covered individuals’ campaigns to save the iconic 76 ball globes, which are being phased out and destroyed as part of ConocoPhillips’ 2002 purchase of the Unocal chain.

Los Angeles is North America's largest gasoline market and an epicenter of America's car culture. The Union 76 gasoline brand -- known since the 1980s as simply 76 -- has long been ubiquitous there. Originally owned by Union Oil of California, later known as Unocal, the circular orange logo with blue letters dates to the 1940s.

It wasn't until the 1962 Seattle World's Fair that the ball made the scene. The company hired advertising firm Young & Rubicam to make its display, and executive Ray Pedersen ordered up an enormous orange ball in a style fitting the era's Space-Age aesthetic. Company officials soon started installing plastic balls at their gas stations up and down the West Coast, as well as a few other scattered locations across the country. The balls were so popular, Unocal began selling a pint-sized version that that fit atop radio antennas.

By 2002, however, the 76 stations were looking a little shabby and the balls a little dated. Unocal had sold the brand to Tosco Corp., which became part of ConocoPhillips. "We felt the appearance needed to be more contemporary," says Mr. Morrison, the marketing executive. Surveys showed that consumers preferred gas stations that were well-lit and had a "bright, clean look," he says. Color experts hired by the company said a red and white palette conveyed this orderliness. The orange balls didn't fit.

Starting in 2003, the balls started coming down and being replaced with flat signs with a small red-and-blue 76 logo. Kim Cooper, an author and cultural historian, noticed the new color scheme at a gas station near her Los Angeles house. "It made me feel unsettled," she says of the new colors. A couple of hours later, she had registered the Web site www.savethe76ball.com .

Word of the Web site and the disappearing balls quickly reached Ms. Kim Koga at the [Los Angeles] Museum of Neon Art. While she was growing up in Southern California, her family had a 76 ball on the antenna of their Volkswagen hatchback. Over the years, her museum had built up a collection of more than 50 commercial signs....Getting a ball, she decided, "would be the highlight of our collection. . . . It moves and lights up. How cool is that?" Last April, she sent a letter to ConocoPhillips' Houston headquarters. It went unanswered….

About the same time, ConocoPhillips marketing executives fretting over the backlash convened focus groups on the West Coast. A clear message emerged. "People love the ball, they love to talk about the ball and they reminisce about the ball," says Mr. Morrison.

ConocoPhillips changed course. It decided to install up to 100 red balls, focusing on high-traffic areas where the station owners were interested. And it decided to save about three dozen orange balls and donate them to "appropriate public collections."

Earlier this month, a ConocoPhillips official took a tour of Ms. Koga's museum. They talked for an hour, reminiscing about a 76 ball that once sat atop the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium. Ms. Koga received word this week from ConocoPhillips: Her museum will finally own a ball.

I still remember Dodgers radio broadcasts with Vin Scully telling fans to “go with the spirit—the spirit of 76.” I hope the ball stays above the Dodger Stadium station for years to come.