Building and maintaining brand equity is of utmost strategic importance for any consumer product company. Within the electric utility sector, most companies have only invested in their brands in so far as to create websites, bill inserts and educational collateral with their logo, brand colors and fonts. A Market Essense research study (May 2017) revealed that more consumers associate negative words (62%) with their utilities than positive ones (38%), reflecting the poor levels of brand equity that currently resides with utility companies.
Why is this? For starters, building a successful brand involves much more that a logo and adhering to branding guidelines. In order for utility brands to resonate with customers, it involves going beyond the commodity that electricity is, and bringing to life the brand’s principles and business strategies across all customer interactions, in a way that brings tangibility to the brand and gives it a distinct identity. What is the essence of the utility brand? Its brand values? And its personality?
Secondly, and more importantly, we have to be clear about what we are branding. The most obvious and relevant is the utility itself, e.g. ComEd, Eversource, etc. While this was the only significant brand 15 years ago, times are evolving rapidly. Customers are now coming into contact with a variety of brands associated with their utility and their energy experience. For example, they might receive a mailer to enroll in the “smart energy program” with their utility; they might speak to an appliance rebate representative at Best Buy; or they might receive an email from Nest to sign up with their utility to get $85 back on their thermostat. If that isn’t confusing enough, customers are also getting rooftop solar offers that promise a reduction in their utility bill, or have heard of a neighbor registering their backup generators with their utility. In today’s environment, where the utility experience ends and a broader energy experience begins is very nebulous for the customer.
Based on the shifts that we are seeing in customer sentiment across the US, now is the time for utilities to go beyond simple corporate branding and to urgently focus on branding their customers’ energy experiences, holistically and deliberately. If they do not, the marketplace will decide how utilities are positioned in the customers’ mind, which will be an increasingly shrinking mindshare as competitive forces take over (Figure 1).
We predict that the benefit for utilities that do invest strategically in branding their energy experiences will be significant. By taking a more holistic approach across the customer’s energy experience, utilities will be positioned to guide customers effectively across the whole energy value chain, a role that is strategically important for utilities to regain (Figure 2).