At the end of September, I had the good fortune to present Cogent Reports’ work at the first-of-its-kind energy branding conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. The conference brought together CEOs and CMOs from utilities across the globe, and provided valuable insights into the challenges utilities face and the ways they’ve successfully overcome them. Several key themes emerged from the conference:
1. We’re All in the Same Boat
Regardless of whether utilities were state-owned or investor-owned, whether they were regulated or deregulated, or the role they played in the grid from generation to distribution, nearly every utility that presented shared common challenges that will sound familiar to U.S. utilities. These challenges included making the business case for brand (more on that in a moment), figuring out how to pivot business models, and effectively engaging consumers.
As Nick Gorgoglione, a former senior brand manager for the telecom firm Vodafone said, “We’re not an Apple. People don’t listen to us. People don’t want to listen to us.”
2. Some Utilities Have Figured Out the Secret Sauce
Utility CEOs and brand managers who presented offered similar stories of how they made the business case for focusing on their brand. As Jukka Ruusune, CEO of the Finnish state-owned transmission utility Fingrid summed up, “Trust gives us a license to operate.”
More specifically, utilities spoke about brand—and its role in creating trust—as being critical to allowing them to respond effectively to current market pressures. For example, Fintan Slye, CEO of the Irish state-owned transmission utility EirGrid, discussed how his utility increasingly relies on trust to have productive conversations with stakeholders about transmission lines that are necessary to bring renewable energy from where the resources are to where the power is consumed.
Utility leaders also spoke about brand as being key to acquiring and retaining the talent they need to build a culture that can support the various types of transformation their businesses are undergoing. For example, the Danish utility Energinet has brought on people such as Helle Andersen, formerly a communication leader at Lego. Similarly, Fingrid’s Ruusune made the case that his utility still needs the technical expertise of engineers, but “they need to understand people” in order to effectively develop and deliver Fingrid’s value proposition to its customers.
3. Brand Is More than a Logo
Several speakers, including UK energy retailer OVO Energy CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick, drew a key distinction between “branding” and “brand.” The former is essentially marketing while the latter reflects market perceptions of the utility. Jim Rogers, former CEO of Duke Energy, echoed this distinction, “If you want to shape your customers’ feelings about you, you have to do real things.”
This theme can be summed up as “understand your customers; humanize your utility.” In other words, it’s important to develop and deeply understand customer segments on an emotional—not just a logical–level in order to appeal to customers. Several examples drive this point home.
Martin Stadler, director at the German strategy and communication firm Edenspiekermann, discussed how the German utility E.ON used customer personas to fix brand-damaging customer experiences. In the example Stadler shared, E.ON threatened legal action against customers who accidentally missed one payment. This led to customer uncertainty and frustration, particularly for customers who put personal pride in their reliability and avoidance of debt. By understanding these values, E.ON was able to change its process to focus on solving the problem—framed in a “don’t worry, we’ll solve this together” way—which led to customer relief and, ultimately, better brand perception.
Dutch utility giant Eneco is focusing on behind-the-meter products and services to increase positive customer touchpoints with the brand. They have found that offerings such as smart thermostats, solar and EV charging help create positive brand associations with consumers. “People are motivated to buy solar not only because of sustainability but also because of independence,” said Eneco brand manager Regine Alewijnse. By offering solar to customers, Eneco can effectively position itself as helping them achieve their personal goals.
Foundations to Build Upon
There were far too many great stories from the CHARGE conference to capture in one blog post. As such, I encourage you to look at the Branding and Retail e-magazine published by Engerati featuring articles and videos from many of the speakers at the conference. In it, you’ll find additional details on how to drive tangible business benefits from utility brand efforts, as well as advice on how to effectively approach brand marketing and customer experience from utility leaders who have successfully driven these initiatives within their organization.
If you’d like more information on our perspective on these issues at Market Strategies, read my article, The Most Important Factor for Utility Transformation Success, in the e-magazine and the accompanying video.