When I tell my friends that I’m working on a large-scale branding program for a municipal electric utility, I’m always met with the same slightly surprised question, “Why would a utility ever need to worry about their brand? It’s not like you get to choose your electric company, right?”
Well, the simple answer is yes, a utility should care deeply about its brand. For starters, just like any other business out there, whether you’re a retailer, an educational conglomerate, or a bank, it’s important to go through the exercise of answering those fundamental organizational questions: Who are we? What do we do? Why should people care?
Deciding what the brand is all about, what you are at your core—whether you are a monopoly or not—brings clarity to the organization and a common purpose to the people who work there. The brand becomes a platform on which everything else is built. Employees know why they show up for work every day. Leaders have a framework within which to make decisions. Communications are unified and consistent. Customers have a consistent experience that makes sense. A strong brand provides the structure that every company needs and that every customer expects.
Another important reason somewhat unique to the electricity world is that the business is fundamentally changing. It’s no longer about generating electricity in a big plant, sending it along to homes and businesses on poles and wires, and then communicating with customers once a month through a billing statement. Changes in regulation in response to renewable energy concerns and environmental awareness have forced electricity companies to rethink not only how they create power—but also how they distribute power to their customers. Therefore, these companies must also reconsider what the ideal relationship with their customers should, and could be.
The smart grid (from Wikipedia—“A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control appliances at consumers’ homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency.”) is a new digital channel that will give unexpected players in the electricity market the opportunity to get in front of a utility’s customers. Already, giants such as Microsoft and Google are creating smart grid products, such as home energy monitors, that have the potential to “own” the relationship with a utility customer. The utility could be regulated to the role of service provider vs. having any lasting associations of value in the mind of the customer. Utility customers only spend six to nine minutes thinking about their electrical provider a year already—imagine the decline in engagement if Google is perceived as providing a more useful service than the electric company!
A clearly articulated brand promise based on bigger ideas—and the resulting branded behavior that helps to bring it to life—can help electrical utilities stay ahead of new competitors and engage with customers on a more meaningful level. Rather than being regulated to something customers don’t even think about—a utility brand based on an emotional promise can actually come to mean something important to its customers.
For my client, the new brand story is about the role they want to play in improving and facilitating customers’ lives—moving away from a transactional relationship to actually being perceived as a visionary leader who truly cares about the community they serve. Could we dare say that customers could actually come to love their electrical provider? Time (and a well-orchestrated brand building and implementation program led by Siegel+Gale!) will tell.
So the next time that you think it’s not important for utilities to care about their brand, think again. A well-articulated brand platform gives an organization—no matter what they do—a purpose, a decision-making framework, differentiation from competition and a reason for customers to engage in a truly meaningful relationship.