How ExxonMobil revamped its mobile app to build up its brand

No one gets excited about going to the gas station, but ExxonMobil says it differentiated its brand by creating a seamless nationwide digital experience for customers.

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In 2016, ExxonMobil launched its SpeedPass mobile app, giving customers a way to pay for gas and earn loyalty points. In 2017, during events like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, Exxon learned what it really takes to make life easier for customers using digital tools -- regardless of the circumstances.

"We saw heavy demands on the system -- as you can imagine, people were preparing for storms," Devin Miller, ExxonMobil's digital app development manager, said to ZDNet. "We can't be in a position where we have to say, 'Let's go rack a server, there's a storm coming.' Our infrastructure has to be dependable enough that it's flexible and can handle the business without thinking about those things."

So earlier this year, Exxon debuted a new-and-improved SpeedPass+ app, which it used in July to roll out a new loyalty program. Miller said the revamp is paying off: Exxon in 2018 has seen daily transaction volumes on the app double. Meanwhile, Exxon says app users purchase two times as much fuel on average when compared to customers who pay without the app.

The app has helped the business simply because it makes it easier for customers to buy gas, Miller said. "Nobody gets excited about going to the gas station to purchase fuel, but by removing those pain points [such as searching for a credit card] we're able to differentiate our brands."

ExxonMobil worked with IBM to get a better understanding of their infrastructure needs. For instance, Miller said, "If there's a storm in the Northeast but it's during West Coast peak volume time, we had to make sure we'd be able to scale and support those peaks."

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In addition to hosting the product on the IBM Cloud, ExxonMobil worked with IBM to improve app functionality and design in a variety of ways. Miller said the underlying goal for the revamp was to make the app simple, intuitive and secure.

"No app update that I've ever gotten has come with an instruction manual," he said. Furthermore, he said, digital consumers "are used to a one-click system where things are known about you, where your preferences are remembered... a customized experience that works no matter where you are."

Improving the app's geolocation capability "took quite a bit of work," Miller said.

That said, ExxonMobil has limited the information it collects on consumers, Miller said. The app simply asks for a name and an email address, so the customer can get emailed receipts.

ExxonMobil works with IBM and the payment processing vendor First Data to facilitate transactions made with digital tokens. Miller said the tokens are akin to invoice numbers and are "useless bits of information if they're not tied to that transaction at that moment in time." Payment credentials stay with the processor and the issuing bank, without ever passing to a point-of-sale system or being stored on a phone, Miller said.

"We do have a keen focus on security," he said.

All told, Miller said the app overhaul underscored the importance of user experience.

"You can have the best widget or the best feature out there, but if the consumer's experience isn't flawless, then nobody's going to come to it," he said.