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What's that decal?

Why all those Sunoco stickers all over the place

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Branding is that nefarious practice marketing gurus drool over. It's kind of like star quality. More than just name recognition, branding goes a step further --- the car says you're cool, the shoes say you're sexy, or the champagne says you can afford it.

At a time when millions of Americans are seething about high gas prices and those obscene profits the big oil companies are posting without so much as a smidgen of humility, one company is side-stepping the whole drama and turning the nation's anxiety into wishful thinking.

Sunoco, one of the East Coast's biggest gas retail outlets, has combined its NASCAR sponsorship with a promotion called "Free Fuel 5000." The next time you're at a Sunoco station, pick up one of the magnets and slap it on your car next to the obligatory patriotic ribbon. Sunoco has hired what they call "professional spotters," and if one of these folks sees you with one, you have a chance to win one of 5,000 prizes the company is giving away. The grand prize --- are you ready? --- is 10,000 gallons of free Sunoco gas. Forget about the all-expense-paid four nights in Vegas. If you still haven't recovered from $50 to $100 for a tank of gas, this is a prize you could use.

That explains why you've probably seen the blue and yellow Sunoco magnets everywhere. It's hard to drive a block or two without seeing one on the trunk of someone's car. And there's no doubt about the company. The logo is so identifiable even sight-disadvantaged Mr. Magoo could spot these guys.

"This is the second year for the program, but it is the first time we tried it in the Rochester market," says Charlie Vlais, Sunoco's manager of marketing services. "We tested it last year in the Buffalo market and it was a huge success."

Paul Marone, owner of East Avenue Auto, says his station alone has given out nearly 6,000 of the magnets.

Sunoco defines success, according to Valis, by how much more gas they sell in the market. And he says the promotion has helped Sunoco keep its No. 1 position in Pennsylvania and elevated it to the No. 2 retailer in New York. Valis says bout a half-dozen Rochester car owners have been spotted for small prizes, but the grand prize is still out there.

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