There are many current challenges in the energy sector. The sector is adapting to increased demand for sustainable energy and balancing new renewable sources with the current loads of the users connected to the grid. The generation of energy by renewables such as wind and solar at industrial scale is not the only challenge the utilities need to find a sustainable way to implement but also how to feed the electricity created by distributed generation and prosumers onto the grid.
Communicating with prosumers
These challenges are not only for the engineers to figure out – they create an energy marketing challenge – how good are the energy brands in communicating with end customers of energy and how strong are the brands in creating a dialogue with different stakeholders in order to implement the renewables and different types of technology and adapt users to the new reality of the energy space.
A new two-way dialogue between energy company and consumer
Distributed generation and prosumers have created a whole new dialogue between utilities and the public – the public is no longer just the recipient of energy but is starting to feed electricity into the grid. It has been a headache for the regular consumer to understand the normal energy bills, imagine how the regular prosumer is able to understand the bill when he or she is the one charging the utility. This requires clear communication, good utility marketing and a good energy marketing communication needs the clear vision of the energy brand behind it.
The democratisation of energy will happen on some scale in the coming years. The advancements in solar technology and small-scale generation of energy mean that price will come down. Powered by blockchain technology and smart devices, microgrids will begin to become more frequent where people trade energy they generate with their neighbours. Peer to peer trading of energy might become as common as running water is today. The energy customer of tomorrow might sell excess electricity that came from the rooftop and stored in their car onto the grid. Development and implementation of vehicle-to-grid solutions has already begun.
Adjusting to a new reality
Energy companies, whether it is the traditional utility or energy retailers might have to adjust to this new reality of microgrids and peer to peer energy trading. Although the need for their traditional services might not be as needed as it is today, they are trusted as experts in electricity and their brands might take advantage of that brand asset. Energy as a service will become an invaluable part of the business model and it will be interesting to follow the development of the unique value propositions that the future energy brands will offer their customers.
The biggest challenge any utility brand faces is the gap between its brand image and brand identity. Brand image is how outsiders perceive the brand and identity is how the brand is being perceived inside the company or how managers and employees want the brand to be perceived by outsiders. This is not a problem exclusive to utility brands, energy brands or other corporate brands that have a similar background as energy companies.
Why the gap exists
The biggest reason for the perception gap is that branding of the utility is not taken seriously enough. Research has shown that the biggest hurdle for utilities to become a strong brand is the lack of understanding on behalf of management. The marketing departments have a great understanding of the importance of branding and what branding is about and what it is not exclusively about. The problem lies with other departments and top management.
What is branding about?
To many, branding is the issue of marketing or comms – for many, branding is nice colours and a cool logo. But branding is not something that can be siloed in a single department. For the utility brand to succeed as an energy brand, the whole organisation needs to live and breathe the brand. The best definition of a brand is that is whatever people perceive about the organisation. This means every interaction that the customer has had with the utility, every interaction the customer is having and will have with the utility brand. Every thought the customer has and will have about the utility.
Maintaining the gap
Looking at branding as something best kept contained at marketing or worse, containing branding for a designer that draws a logo, means that there will be a big perceptual gap between what the company wants to be perceived as and what the customer perceives the company to be. A CEO might want a brand-overhaul and asks the ad agency to draw a cool logo but no research is conducted on where this cool factor should stem from inside the corporation or its culture. The marketing department might come up with the idea for brand values but gets no support to implement it within the organisation and get everyone involved.
The results of the gap
Trying to be something that you are not will result in the customer to perceive one personality in the marketing material and branding of a utility but will perceive several other personalities and messages while communicating with the utility and its employees. Branding for utilities just like any other organisation is a human resource matter as well as a strategy issue. A clearly defined brand is an important factor of a well defined and well-organised company strategy.
Closing the gap
There are two ways to close the gap. One way is to identify what the utility and its corporate culture are about and emphasise the core values of everyone inside the utility. Another way is to align the long-term vision of the brand with the long-term vision of the utility. This might need some changes in the culture of the company and the core values of the employees. Either way, re-branding an established utility is not done overnight. It is a process that might take one or two years to implement internally and a lifetime to maintain and adjust.
As Ryan O’Keeffe pointed out during his presentation at the CHARGE Energy Branding Conference last September, large energy companies with a long legacy of generating and selling electricity, are not normally considered cool.
The company has and is going through a comprehensive overhaul of its image, meaning and role in the fast-changing energy environment. As Mr O’Keeffe pointed out, it was a change in strategy that was long overdue, the company’s old logo was designed when Google was still operating out of a garage in Silicon Valley.
We as a power company can and must play a key role in tackling these challenges.
Enel found itself working in a new energy paradigm and found that how it had been conducting itself for the last fifty years was not going to work in the next fifty years. During the rebranding process, there were some strengths that the brand possessed that would become valuable in the changing energy landscape. By taking a humble approach and acknowledging that a big corporation with a big corporation culture might not foster innovation that could keep up with the time. The brand turned this weakness into a strength by using its global scale and resources to foster open innovation; helping entrepreneurs that are set out to change the energy paradigm even further.
Ryan’s presentation from CHARGE – The World’s First Energy Branding conference can be seen below. Enel was one of the finalists for the 2016 CHARGE Awards as one of the world’s best energy brands. The report on the best utility brands has been published by LarsEn Energy Branding and can be found here. The 2017 CHARGE Energy Branding conference takes place in Reykjavik October 9-10 where the CHARGE Awards will be presented for the second time.
Landsvirkjun is Iceland’s biggest power generation company, generating over 70% of electricity in the country. There has been a lot of changes in the Icelandic power market and Landsvirkjun has moved from focusing on low-cost electricity buyers market to a more balanced seller’s market, offering competitive prices.
The company offers 100% renewable power on the wholesale market, having only a few customers, meaning that their branding and image building is a bit different from other traditional power companies. It is, however, important for the largest power company in Iceland to deliver a clear message to their stakeholders (the company is owned by the Icelandic authorities) and their customers.
Landsvirkjun’s mission statement is:
Landsvirkjun’s role is to maximise the potential yield and value of the natural resources it has been entrusted with in a sustainable, responsible and efficient manner.
The role of the company has changed in the last years. Instead of focusing on growth and creating new jobs, its focus is today on more value creation than before. The energy transition and the way renewable resources have become more valuable for end consumers has enabled Landsvirkjun to focus more on the Green value proposition.
Eneco was one of the first of the established energy utilities in the world to become fully renewable and became the frontrunner in the Dutch energy industry in the production of electricity from sustainable sources. Regine Alewijnse, Brand Manager of Eneco presented the brand’s story and the challenges that are facing truly renewable companies when many companies in the energy value chain present themselves as renewable when in fact, a majority of them are renewable only as far as the marketing message goes.
To further the point, Regine explained how sustainability can become more than a hollow marketing message, by making sustainability a valuable brand asset.
Eneco’s approach has not only been to offer renewable energy and offer customers a choice but also to enable customers the possibility to monitor their energy usage and helping them to cut down usage without noticing it by offering software that monitors and detects usage.
It is time for the utilities to shift their messaging in social media. From primarily sending messages about outages, utilities need to add an emphasis on customer relationships.
Tamara McCleary, CEO of Thulium has worked with companies such a IBM and Verizon to help them with driving brand engagement. She spoke on the importance of utilities becoming personal and drive the conversation towards a more human interaction.
The data utilities have today give them a unique opportunity to know the customer better – energy companies need to stop talking at customers but must start a conversation with them.
There is a lot of misunderstanding on the nature and role of branding as well as how to define marketing. Many think that marketing is just about fun and games – something that is about advertising and events – a thing that funds can be allocated to during a boom cycle. For many, the concept of branding means something that is a more elaborate version of marketing.
Marketing is any signal a company sends out to the market. It can of course be a nice commercial or a Tweet but it is also price signals through the resources they buy and the products they sell, it is the voice that answers at the end of the line and the bills sent out. Every organisation both in regulated and deregulated markets should be aware that everything a company does is marketing in one way or another, direct or indirect – just as everyone is in customer service in one way or another.
Branding defines the How of marketing and the Why. It is a strategic tool and it should define how the customer experiences the brand. But neither branding nor marketing can define the brand. A brand can be defined at a company level but the real definition of a brand comes from the customer – it is the customer who really perceives the brand as it really is.
Marketing for the electric utility or the energy brand should not only be thought of as advertising or social media appearance. It should be thought of everything a brand or a company does and any touchpoint with both internal and external audiences and stakeholders.