Flipping a switch twenty years ago, who thought twice about how power got through a socket? It was like turning on water. It just came through.

To the average consumer, words like “grid” made people think about football, not energy. Electricity was an invisible commodity. The bill at month’s end made you bristle, but you paid it if you could. Generally speaking, electricity bills have been soaring closer to double-digit increases every year, for years.

But the aging, rickety grid of today is even more jolting than the price of electricity. The blackout of 2003 cast fifty-five million people in eight states into darkness. Blackouts and brownouts amounted to the loss of billions. Like the hanging chad, terms like deregulation, energy gaming and rolling blackout became household terms—all bleak signs of a flickering future for an antiquated system held together by duct tape, bubble gum and technology from the 1960s.

But today increased regulatory pressures, new consumer expectations and diminishing storage capacity have forced public utilities to rethink the balance of resources, reinvent relationships with customers and earn new trust with the communities they serve. Interest in reduced carbon emissions has created new consumer expectations about energy. Concepts like “community choice aggregation” are lightning rods for debate and innovation. Receptivity to new ideas like “energy security” and the “smart grid” is higher than ever. The Prius is more fashionable than the Escalade, and T. Boone Pickens, traditionally an oil and gas man, is now flogging wind power.

Changes like this have created an opportunity for public utilities to reconnect with consumers and get them turned-on to new ideas and new technology. Utilities now have a chance to reenergize themselves as meaningful brands in what was previously a commodity marketplace.

The active participation of consumers in the generation, storage and distribution of energy provides the biggest opportunity for public utilities. Ultimately the smart grid will enable consumers to also become producers of electricity. Smart meters already make it possible for utilities to offer consumers more control over their rates and provide two way customer relationships. This is an opportunity for utilities to turn consumers into partners and to create a new, more dynamic conversation with the marketplace.

It can all start with how utilities communicate about change with both employees and consumers. The development of stronger approaches to internal engagement and more meaningful external communications can lead to more relevant brand strategies. Even something as basic as a more user-friendly monthly bill can help build new trust, earn higher customer satisfaction, customer loyalty and, well, more timely bill payments.

Nikolas Contis is global director of naming for Siegel+Gale.


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