This Truck Stop Chain’s $100 Million Bathrooms Star in Its New Ad Campaign

Pilot Flying J markets to families

Some brands are so sexy they almost market themselves. Some brands are not. You can put truck stops in the latter category.

So when Pilot Flying J, which operates 650 travel centers along America's interstates, was mapping out its first major integrated marketing campaign—which debuts today—it made a nervy decision. Instead of just touting amenities like Wi-Fi, and food and beverage choices, the company gave a starring role to its restrooms. In the brand's new 30-second TV spot (which you can see below) and in one of its four new print ads, the commode is the best seat in the house.

According to vp of brand and consumer experience Whitney Johnson, the restroom was a necessary thing to spotlight—not that it was easy. "There's nothing hugely sexy and glamorous about travel centers along the interstate, and restrooms are a hard thing to showcase," she said. "But they're important to customers and especially families."

Ah yes, that's the bigger idea behind this campaign—a print, TV and web-based effort that represents the family-owned company's most ambitious marketing effort to date. For years now, truck stops (sorry, travel centers) have been catering to more than just truckers, and Pilot Flying J's campaign is clearly designed to appeal to families—customers who Johnson affectionately refers to as "four wheeled customers."

 

Anchoring the new effort is a 30-second spot created by Nashville agency 3 Sons Media. It features an all-American family languishing from the boredom and fatigue of a long road trip, then being rejuvenated by a stop at Pilot travel center (Flying J and Pilot merged in 2010) with its creature comforts including free Wi-Fi, an "amazing variety of food and drink choices," and, of course, "clean, modern bathrooms."

Actually, the bathrooms really are both clean and modern. Pilot Flying J is in the process of spending a cool $100 million on upgrading its restrooms, fitting them out with LED fixtures and luxurious Italian tile. But based on the research, it's money well spent. According to a 2016 survey by the National Association of Convenience Stores, not only is a restroom visit the reason 70 percent of drivers stop the car to start with, restroom cleanliness is a decisive factor in which rest stops motorists choose. Some 41 percent of respondents said that clean facilities are a critical factor in where they stop and whether they return—putting restrooms on par with food options in terms of their importance to motorists.

Meanwhile, in addition to the new TV spot, four print ads via Erwin Penland tout the gourmet coffee and the new myPilot app, which gives members a 3-cent-per-gallon discount on gas.

The company is also sponsoring the much-anticipated college football game on Sept. 10 pitting the Virginia Tech Hokies against the Tennessee Volunteers, a game now called the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol. Promoters hope to see 150,000 fans in the stands of the Bristol Motor Speedway, where the game is being played. If attendance hits that figure, it'll break the college football attendance record of 115,109. ABC will broadcast the game, while ESPN will air Pilot Flying J's new TV spot.

Johnson said the football game isn't just a chance to reach a broad audience, it's also a nod to Pilot Flying J's history since founder Jim Haslam (Johnson's grandfather) played for the Volunteers in 1951, a few years before opening his first truck stop in Gate City, Va. "With that history—our first store in Virginia and him playing for the University of Tennessee—we felt that this tie-in was great opportunity," Johnson said.

And if fans driving to or from the Bristol Motor Speedway decide to stop at a Pilot Flying J, at least they'll be guaranteed clean restrooms.