At Market Strategies, we’ve recently seen an uptick in utilities wanting to better define and manage their brand. I recently sat down with Claire Maglione, New Jersey Natural Gas’ (NJNG) manager of customer experience, to discuss how they’ve approached their brand work and why it’s important even for a regulated utility like NJNG. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Why is brand important to a regulated utility like New Jersey Natural Gas?
Claire: Typically, a company uses a brand to differentiate itself from competitors. For most energy utility companies, that doesn’t necessarily hold true. In our service territory, customers can choose their natural gas supplier, so in that sense there is competition, but they cannot choose the company who delivers it. For NJNG, the importance of brand is a matter of being viewed as a trusted source: to safely and reliably provide natural gas to homes and businesses, enable customers to easily conduct business, educate customers on energy-efficiency, make products and services both affordable and available and be a good community partner.
How has a focus on brand impacted your business?
Claire: NJNG created The SAVEGREEN Project® in support of its ongoing effort to provide customers knowledge and money-saving incentives to make the right energy choices for their family. When the program was rolled out, our customers embraced it, trusting we were doing what was best for them.
We also find our brand helps our relationships with our stakeholders, such as regulators, legislators, municipalities, etc., and conversely, our relationships help build our brand.
How did you go about developing your brand strategy, and how did customer research play into the development effort?
Claire: Our brand strategy is built on doing the right thing for our customers and the communities we serve. We are firm believers that if you do the right thing at the core of the business, all else will take care of itself.
We have a great group of employees who are proud to work at NJNG. The best example is the company-wide effort put forth during Superstorm Sandy. Teamwork abounded from the field employees who worked under the most extreme conditions to re-pressurize or replace 270 miles of gas lines, rebuild or replace 51,000 meters, complete 121,000 service assessments and safely restore service to over 31,000 customers in less than eight weeks. Office employees also rolled up their sleeves working extra hours in roles outside their wheelhouse—all to ensure getting service restored to customers.
Our employees also serve as ambassadors outside their work hours. Through giving their own time at company-sponsored events or as a private individual volunteering with scouts, sports or social service organizations, our employees help build and maintain the NJNG brand.
In terms of research, we look to voice-of-the-customer research to ensure we are keeping our brand aligned with the needs and expectations of our customers. For instance, after polling our online customer panel, NJNG Viewpoint, on our role as a community partner, we expanded the number of agencies to whom we were providing assistance to include those that support causes most important to our customers. In addition to our panel, we also use data from third-party studies, like Cogent Reports’ Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement TM study, to further analyze voice-of-the customer as well as compare ourselves with others in the industry. We also look beyond energy utilities to other industries for technology, processes and practices.
From a tactical standpoint—like look and feel—what do NJNG’s branding efforts look like?
Claire: We’ve selected some warm, inviting colors that are used throughout all messages and channels, and always try to appeal to customers’ comfort and convenience. Making transactions easier so customers have more time for the things in life that are most important to them is part of our messaging. And, as far as channels are concerned, we want customers to use the channel that is most convenient to them, and we want the experience to be the same across all channels. Like every other company out there, we are seeing the shift from desktops to laptops, laptops to tablets, and tablets to mobile phones. We strive to equally serve all demographics.
I understand you use the Cogent Reports Utility Trusted Brand and Customer Engagement study as NJNG’s brand tracker. How do you use the study to measure and enhance your brand perception?
Claire: As I previously mentioned, we use the study to further analyze voice-of-the-customer and compare ourselves with others in the industry. We also look at our ratings in light of newly implemented initiatives to gain an understanding of any positive or negative impacts, taking a deeper dive to understand the drivers of any unexplainable deviations. Customers’ verbatim also are an important component of our analyses; we might conduct customer panels or bring in focus groups if we need more detailed information based on what we see in the Cogent studies.
Historically, utilities have not been terribly focused on their brands. Was there a significant change management effort involved in getting your utility to undertake this work? What did that look like?
Claire: When we made the decision to support the state’s initiative to reduce its carbon footprint, some employees had a difficult time understanding how we would continue to grow revenue. To most, encouraging the addition of appliances to promote natural gas consumption was core to our business. It took time, many presentations and affirmation by senior management to win many over. For others, even after receiving multiple layers of education, it had to be “seen to be believed.” It was a slow process, but employees are collectively on board and communicate with customers using words like “paperless” and “energy-efficiency,” and our customer service representatives give energy-saving tips, with respect to all utilities, when speaking with customers.
What advice do you have for other utilities that are starting to think more seriously about their brand?
Claire: Remember, it takes the brain 60,000 times longer to process words than it does an image, so continue on the mission to make your company memorable. Gather the right resources to ensure your brand conveys who you are. Know your stakeholders. Be consistent with your branding. Engage your employees. Have fun with it.
Download a brief webinar The Value of Utility Brand Trust on the 2017 results from the Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement study.