In coffee shops all over the US and Canada, people are enjoying their iPads, MacBooks, iPods, and iPhones while sipping caramel macchiatos (more on Starbucks later). Many of these users serve as virtual sales reps for Apple, as they have become evangelists for the company and its products. These users will gladly pay a premium over competing products for Apple’s legendary user interface—and its brand recognition and allure. Apple’s brand value has been pegged by the brand equity database BrandZ at $183 billion1—that’s the value over and above the intrinsic value of its products and services. It may be preposterous to believe that utilities could achieve this type of brand strength to where people in coffee shops are talking about Friendly Power’s next demand-side management program launch with great anticipation, but it’s certainly possible to make some major moves in that direction.

The backdrop for the importance of growing a strong utility brand appears as we see fundamental shifts in how utilities make money, now and in the future. As electricity and gas consumption growth slows and information technologies such as smart meters expand, new models for utility revenue growth and profitability are emerging. In almost every proposed model, the customer experience—including satisfaction, reliability, and other key customer attributes—rises in importance and becomes part of the reward system. Ultimately, these financial rewards rely not on how many large power plants are built, but on the level of engagement from customers, their level of satisfaction, and their desire to further participate in a far-reaching range of utility products and services.

An avid iPod user with an excellent user experience makes a natural customer for a new iPhone. Likewise, a customer who has an excellent experience with a utility’s weatherization program will become a likely participant when the utility offers a behavior-change program, a new pricing option, or even a distributed generation technology. What ends up in the mind of the customer as brand essence begins with the myriad inputs that influence brand, such as the website, the call center, the linemen out working during a storm, or the product offerings that enhance people’s lives (see sidebar).

The Brand Backdrop: Sliding into Irrelevance?

How is it possible that the products that have made our lives so rich, simple, and full of entertainment and value have become so irrelevant in people’s minds? Electricity and gas service has become part of our collective background noise over the past 100 years. Customers notice the commodity part of our products only when something goes wrong. When the power goes out, people don’t know what to do with themselves, at least once the batteries have run out on their smart phones. Utilities have done their job so well that they’ve created a new challenge: to recreate their brands so that the companies are relevant for the 21st century’s customer base. Other companies have done it successfully: Disney, Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Starbucks have all gone through crises of brand trust and equity, only to emerge stronger than ever.

The brand challenge for utilities was quite different 50 to 75 years ago. Reddy Kilowatt, the icon of the electric power business, touted that “living electrically” was the path to a life of productivity and leisure. Imagine the change in a family’s life when they got their first washing machine, clothes dryer, or dishwasher, or their delight when the first television sets were introduced. Not only were these life-changing inventions enabled by electricity, they were promoted by electric and gas utilities, and the utility brand was interwoven with images of innovation and the future.2

Fast-forward to today. Where is the utility brand challenge? Instead of helping customers live electrically, which they already do quite well without encouragement, the challenge now is to become part of their new, more connected lives. Millennials were born with a silver iPod in their mouths, so to speak. There are many paths to recreate brand relevance for utilities, but all lead back to the experience customers have with your company, its employees, and its products and services. The US and Canada are seeing a steady march of change in demographics, away from traditional families toward diversity at every turn. The experience, and the brand, must resonate with an increasingly demanding customer base (see sidebar).

Beyond Satisfaction: What Influences Brand Value?

Breaking down the wide variety of brand influences can assist companies in defining the customer experiences that will provide high value and lasting brand equity. In E Source’s annual survey of residential utility customers,5 we focus a battery of questions on brand value. In turn, we’re able to compare the brand value of the US’s largest utilities to one another.

We surveyed nine attributes that we consider to be the most important influences on overall brand value:

  • Reliability. How reliable is your utility to work with and in delivering electricity and gas?
  • Customer service. When needed, how good is your customer service?
  • Value. For the price, what is the relative value of your utility’s products and services?
  • Communications. How well do your customers think you communicate with them about important issues that affect them?
  • Environment. What efforts are you making to be environmentally friendly?
  • Programs. Do you offer programs that help customers manage their energy bills?
  • Community involvement. How well does the utility support the community?
  • Loyalty. How loyal are your customers to the company?
  • Image. How positive is the customers’ image of your utility?

Based on customer scoring of their utilities, we were able to create an overall brand score and ranking among most of the largest 60 utilities in the US. We spoke with leaders at two of the top five—SRP (Salt River Project) in Arizona and Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) in Nebraska—to gather insights on how they maintain such strong brand value.

Customer Experience: Take Advantage of Every Touchpoint

As Figure 1 illustrates, one of the greatest influences on a company’s brand is the personal experience customers have whenever they interact with the company, its employees, and its offerings. For a new customer, the Apple experience might begin at the Apple Store, or perhaps on Apple’s website. The look and feel of the store and website are no accidents—they emit the brand essence that Apple wants to portray: clean, hip, casual. At the Apple Store, customers are welcome to hang out, touch the technology, and have a conversation (without a high-pressure sales pitch) with the Apple “geniuses.” The brand journey continues in the user-friendly interface of Apple products, the high-touch customer support, and the myriad add-ons and apps that keep Apple customers engaged over time.

For a utility company, there are many customer touchpoints that must be orchestrated into one coordinated effort to provide the best possible brand experience. Following the Apple newbie theme, a customer who has moved into a new service territory is likely to interact with a utility initially through the enrollment process. If this is done on the phone, the customer’s opinion of the utility is influenced by how knowledgeable and helpful the representative is, how long the customer has to wait on hold, and whether any onerous deposits or forms are required. This initial interaction will launch the customer’s first—and possibly most important—brand impression.

We spoke with Gena Trimble, SRP’s associate general manager of marketing and communications and chief communications executive, who is in charge of all marketing, brand management, and communications activities at the company, about what makes SRP’s brand value so consistent and superior. “Our call center interactions and overall customer communications have probably been our biggest drivers of brand scores in recent years,” she said. “But now we’re working collaboratively within Customer Services and Corporate Communications to make the web experience every bit as good as our other channels.” Trimble states that the overall goal with customer interactions is simple: “Make everything easy and pleasant.” That means achieving excellence across the customer communications spectrum, from getting customers to a live phone representative without making them navigate a lengthy process to connecting with them where and when they desire. It means creating a seamless customer enrollment process for all programs and services and eliminating the customer’s need to contact multiple departments. The meme “easy and pleasant” permeates the culture at SRP. Trimble adds, “Of course, for communications to be a differentiator, our company’s reliability and customer service performance must be excellent.” Customers will engage at a higher level only if the basics are delivered to their expectations.

OPPD also has a great story to tell about customer engagement. We spoke with Tim Burke, vice president of customer service at the utility, about the elements that create OPPD’s brand strength. “Our CEO and other members of the management team regularly go out to speak with our customers and listen to their stories,” he explained. “These stories then cascade through the company, where the voice of the customer is used as a primary element in designing systems, processes, and experiences that fit their needs, not ours.”

Journey mapping—charting out the entire flow a customer experiences when interacting with different elements of your company—can be an important brand-building exercise. The touchpoints that are highlighted in journey maps are all critical brand-building opportunities. Every experience drives brand value either up or down and creates a cumulative brand “bank account.”

Five Steps for Creating a Successful Brand

During the competitive utility fervor of the late 1990s and early 2000s, utilities scrambled to create new brands, often on a national level. During that time, E Source developed a framework for energy service companies to follow that involved five steps (Figure 2). We have updated this brand-building process to reflect today’s marketplace, focusing more on brand evolution and migration, as opposed to wholesale changes.

FIGURE 2: The five steps to a successful brand

We identified five steps that a company can use to develop its brand.

The five-step process can be applied no matter what is to be branded. Because each company has its own specific nuances, the process allows flexibility to decide exactly what branding strategy the company wishes to take. Every brand is as unique as a human personality. Although some strategies have been carefully planned and executed, most outstanding brands have evolved from the underlying values of the company, its market positioning, and the connections built with customers through its products, services, and employees.

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz says he never set out to build a national brand. His fundamental approach involved building relationships with employees. That has been the cornerstone of the business, Schultz says: “Inspire them and they will inspire the customers.”6 The result is customers who, amazingly enough, are not only happy to pay $4 for hot water poured over ground coffee beans—they eagerly return for more the next day.

Creating a strong brand begins with focusing on the internal organization. From upper management to customer service and engineering, all employees need to fully understand, support, and help pursue the company’s ideals. This is not a job that is solely for the corporate communications department; it must permeate all levels of the organization. The strategic business decisions—the ones that will provide the foundation for brand equity—must be made before customers can be effectively convinced of a brand’s value.

Step 1. Discover Your Customer-Brand Sweet Spot—Honestly

Step 1 is all about defining your company and its brand: What does your company want to be in the eyes of the customer? Even more important, what do you want your company not to be? Utilities are often stuck in the “be all things to all people” mind-set. This is only natural, given that utilities serve all segments of the population. But across the board, successful brands maintain a laser focus on their core brand strategies over long periods of time.

Even some of the world’s top brands have run into difficulty defining their brand “sweet spot.” A utility can analyze, in retrospect, what went wrong in each of the following brand strategy problems, and how a similar problem could hamper the utility’s brand development.

  • Blockbuster failed to see how attractive the Netflix service and associated smart web interface would be for customers. Similarly, utilities are starting to lose energy services mind share to intermediaries that have included Google, Microsoft, and Best Buy.
  • Kodak was sunk by arriving late to the digital camera game and not acting forcefully enough on this huge shift. The company may have thought that its brand would carry the day, but the market was willing to purchase cameras from companies that were not traditionally in the photography business. Utilities should keep an eye on distributed generation emergence, including low-cost photovoltaics, as well as the many tools that will emerge from smart meter data.
  • Virgin has suffered from being too scattered, trying to be too many things at once. Utilities suffered a similar fate with spinoffs during deregulation.
  • Sears, which used to dominate the mail-retailer market throughout the US, somehow didn’t see the writing on the wall with Internet shopping. One can only imagine how many executive meetings at Sears occurred with a discussion around the emergence of Amazon, yet with almost no action on the web front. Utilities are starting to engage in more web self-service and online interaction, and this should continue in earnest. But there are some huge steps that most utilities need to make to ensure that their brands remain relevant in the coming decades.

On the success side, Southwest Airlines has owned the low-price, no-frills transportation brand position for decades, even with many other airlines emulating and attacking its position. Southwest has accomplished this through a commitment to its core brand strategy throughout the company, which is even reflected in the light-hearted ads that promote its “we don’t charge you for luggage” campaign. The company also delivers this message through the baggage handlers. Southwest customers expect pleasant (not upscale) transportation at a good price, and the airline delivers consistently.

What do customers expect from Apple? They expect an exceptional, unique user experience, and they also plan to pay a premium price. When Apple doesn’t deliver everything it has promised, consumers aren’t shy about getting the word out and slamming Apple for it. For example, the company’s mapping app that came out in the fall of 2012 didn’t work well, and Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, made a public apology—something many CEOs would never do, at least not in a timely and proactive manner. His letter even suggested that Apple users purchase competitor’s mapping apps, which was quite a bold move:

While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.
Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard.7

More often than not, a company’s chairman is also its brand champion. Names like Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Sam Walton, and Richard Branson conjure images of individuals who have embodied the sum and substance of their corporations. This vision can come from any appropriate executive, possibly titled chief customer officer or customer experience officer. But the lesson, proven time and time again, is that a company-wide commitment to a shared, well-articulated vision, driven by upper management, is the foundation of a successful brand.

Steps to brand discovery. Though the ultimate decision about the brand strategy will typically lie with upper management, the work of developing the appropriate brand position often lands with the marketing, corporate communications, and customer experience teams. Independent of responsibility, the steps for execution are similar. We describe a path for developing this brand strategy below; each company will need to determine its own particular methods, but the issues laid out here are critical to ensure a brand match between the company and the customer base. Some utilities already take on some or all of these steps, but many do not. The alternative is to leave the brand to chance and let others define you—not a very attractive approach.

  1. Conduct an external brand audit. The external audit involves using both quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the brand that currently exists in the minds of your stakeholders: various residential segments, small and large businesses, trade allies, financial players (who can affect bond ratings and stock prices), public stakeholders including politicians and regulators, and other energy organizations that regularly interact with the utility. This audit needs to be blatantly honest. You want to hear all the bad news as well as the positive spin. This is also an opportunity to discover what your customers wish your company did that it doesn’t do now, which plays into the brand gap analysis.
  2. Conduct an employee brand audit. Similar to the external audit, conducting surveys with employees throughout the organization will help you discover the brand image they currently have and determine where the brand should be heading.
  3. Study audit results to define your current brand. The brand team should analyze the audit results and come to grips with what the world believes is your current brand. This should include a concise brand statement, along with brand attributes that your customers, stakeholders, and employees associate with the company.
  4. Compare the “gap” in external brand reality with current brand strategy. At this point, it’s important to compare the company’s current stated brand strategy with what the world, and employees, actually believe it to be. If they are the same, then you’re already way ahead of the game. If they are different, then the work begins by analyzing where the gaps are and how they can be closed (Figure 3).
  5. Create your new brand strategy. You can use your current brand position as a starting point to create a vision of where you want the brand to go in the upcoming years. This is likely to include both an external brand strategy and an internal strategy that drives activities that support the brand.

FIGURE 3: Brand gap analysis

For each brand attribute, a utility can map out the gap between the customers’ desired position and their current perceived decision. Not all brand attributes are equal in importance, but they all contribute to the overall brand.

Table 1 shows an example brand discovery for fictitious utility Friendly Power.

TABLE 1: Friendly Power’s brand discovery

Fictitious utility Friendly Power’s brand strategy example documents results from internal and external brand audits, explains the difference between the company’s stated brand strategy and customer perceptions, and defines a new brand strategy.
TABLE 1: Friendly Power’s brand discovery

Brand position. What brand position to take is one of the hardest decisions that a utility must make, and there is no one answer. Asking customers what they expect or desire is likely to define the minimum expectation they have of their utility. But it’s unlikely that they will be able to articulate a long-term vision of what you could or need to be to thrive long term.

E Source has witnessed the evolution of utility brands over the past two decades. Not long ago, one of the most common brand themes at utilities was reliability and service—essentially the brand of the 20th century. Today, one of the trends we see is a move toward the “trusted partner” position. This trend represents a radical change in brand strategy, definitely in the right direction for today’s demanding customer. E Source sees openings for other brand positions as well, including:

  • Environmental friendliness. Customers show continued interest in clean power, and utilities that consistently meet expectations in this area achieve higher brand scores.
  • Use of current technology. Utilities are often seen as old-fashioned, stodgy, safe, and reliable. But the customers of tomorrow will want the more connected, high-tech experience that they have grown to expect from all of their other providers. Using the smart grid, smart meters, and smart appliances can move a utility into a more high-tech brand position, for example.
  • Efficiency. Customers are typically seeking ways to lower their bills and eliminate waste. Utilities that provide efficiency services in a comprehensive and seamless fashion can gain brand value.

The key to branding, as we mentioned, is to not only determine what you want to be, but also confirm what you are not. Companies that try to be too many things to too many people become unfocused and confuse customers. Step 1 will result in a concise statement of the new brand strategy.

Step 2: Create a Product and Service Portfolio to Support the Chosen Brand

“A brand is no longer defined only by advertising-driven perception. Rather it is defined by the customer’s experience in buying the product; satisfaction in using the product; and the services wrapped around the product with positive consequences.” —Andrew Cohen, Founder, Exposed Brick8

We all have expectations for product or service value once we plunk our money down. But the expectation threshold varies tremendously based on the brand promise. For example, both McDonald’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House will provide a meal for you. But the McDonald’s brand promise includes standing in line, carrying your own food, pouring your own drinks, and busing your own table. We’re OK with that because it’s the brand expectation. But at the steak house, we demand prompt, courteous service, superb food preparation, and elegant ambience. In fact, it’s likely that a guest would be upset if they received a rare steak after ordering it medium-rare. Expectations have a lot to do with creating a positive or negative brand image.

Many companies have a dual objective of providing brand excellence in both product and service delivery as well as in the customer care and experience that surrounds that delivery (Figure 4). Utility companies fall into the space in which both product offerings and customer service are critically important; they can’t afford to be excellent at just one or the other. Utilities’ basic products, electricity and gas, are essentially commodities and have grown into almost an expectation of a public good.

FIGURE 4: Where does your company fall between offerings and customer experience?

Some brands are highly focused on the customer experience, some are more product and service–oriented, and others emphasize a blend of the two. We encourage utilities to map themselves on this spectrum and discuss the strategic implications of their position.

There are two primary methods to become brand relevant in the coming decades: First, to create customer experience excellence, as we mentioned; and second, to develop the new products and services that the emerging generation of energy customers want and need. The Internet is the 21st century version of the electric power grid in the 20th century. But the Internet wasn’t terribly useful until Yahoo, Amazon, Google, and Facebook made it a part of our daily lives. The utility challenge is to bring the value of energy services to life in order to recreate the brand magic of utilities in the era of Mad Men.

Based on the brand strategy developed in Step 1, the product and service portfolio must be developed, over time, to match that brand promise. This portfolio could include technology and software products to match a high-tech brand, an intensive support system for energy efficiency to support an energy services brand, or even an information-savvy brand to support a focus on customer intimacy. The point is that the product and service offerings should be an integral part of the brand strategy support system. Table 2 shows how a hypothetical utility’s brand goals might map to a set of products and services.

TABLE 2: Brand goals can determine products and services

Fictitious utility Friendly Power translates company goals into a set of offerings.

Of course, utilities need to go through a thorough product development process to create the right products, at the right time, for customers. Conducting market research, market tests, and pilots is part of the equation, but the primary goal is to have the product and service portfolio strongly reflect the brand image you wish to portray.

Step 3: Deliver a Customer Experience to Match the Brand Promise

As we noted, one of the ways to harm a brand is to promise something and then not deliver it. Even simple issues—such as promising to get a pizza delivered in 30 minutes but taking 38 instead—create brand impressions that can become indelible and even get talked about among friends. Creating a customer experience to match the brand promise is the other critical element to securing the brand position. We cover the specifics of executing the customer experience in many E Source reports, but suffice it to say that experience and brand go hand in hand. As SRP’s Trimble simply says, “Customer experience and brand are intertwined, and ultimately they really are the same thing.”

But let’s take a step back and look at the context of customer experience and brand to discover deeper needs for both the customer and the support offered by the utility. How are utility customers entering the customer experience? Are they beginning with a positive or negative approach based on their issue? A phone call about a billing error will involve a customer with quite a different emotional attitude compared to one calling to sign up for a new green power program, for example.

Framework for customer engagement and brand experience. Customers have a wide variety of engagement, and therefore experience, with their utility companies. We characterize three prototypical customer personas to start the conversation about how to engage each customer appropriately for improving the brand and the experience:

  • The Casual User. This customer just engages at the level of using electricity and gas as a part of their everyday routine, not really thinking about it except when there’s an outage. They cook, set thermostats, watch TV, and plug in their phone chargers without a thought about the utility. They pay little to no attention to messages about the utility or from the utility.
  • The Active User. This customer is engaged at a moderate level with the basic products of electricity and gas from the utility. They pay the bill, worry about how high the bill is, are responsible for starting and stopping service when they move, and might pay attention at a modest level to messages sent by the utility. They also try to manage energy use in their home, and they have an idea about what it takes to save energy.
  • The Engaged User. This customer has had a more intimate experience with the utility for a variety of possible reasons, and they begin their interaction with the company with either a positive or negative entry point, depending on those reasons. For example, customers with a positive experience entry point might be engaging with the utility about efficiency, green power, insurance, or value-added services, whereas those with a negative experience entry point are contacting the company about a high bill, outage, problem with starting or stopping service, or billing error.

These customers are now thinking much more deeply about the utility as an entity that they can or must work with, and they care dearly about their customer experience. Whether they start from a positive or a negative entry point will make a big difference in how the experience needs to be handled (Figure 5).

FIGURE 5: The duality of brand image and brand passion

The goal for utilities is to move customers into as high a positive brand image area as possible and attempt to engage them to enhance the stickiness of the brand and products.

Brand Passion Scale. Another dimension is the Brand Passion Scale, which depicts how emotionally engaged a customer is with your brand. The passion scale can be mapped to the three user types:

  • The Casual User. Passion about brand will be minimal for this consumer. Because this is a passive user, they don’t care one way or the other as long as the power works. Communications will have little influence on them, and the customer experience is limited to the delivery of commodity.
  • The Active User. Passion about brand may be either low or substantial, most likely in a negative sense, although many people have good feelings about their local utilities. Corporate communications will have a moderate level of brand influence on these consumers.
  • The Engaged User. Passion about brand will grow in these situations. Customer experience becomes more effective than corporate communications. Experience with a positive entry point, when excellent, will create a strong passion for brand; however, bad experience will erode the high potential for a positive brand image. Experience with a negative entry point starts at the negative brand level and can be brought to neutral or above in some cases of excellent problem resolution.

Step 4: Build the Brand from the Inside Out

“Companies with strong brands therefore have a few enormous advantages in the marketplace: (1) The very best people want to work for them. (2) Their brands help their employees focus and make decisions. (3) Their brands motivate their employees to do more than they otherwise would have believed they could.” —David F. D’Alessandro, Brand Warfare9

Building a strong brand takes time—on the order of years and decades for many companies. But once a strong brand is established, the staying power can be quite strong. Brand management firm Interbrand’s Best Global Brands for 2012 demonstrates this longevity for many companies. Coca-Cola, number one on the list, is one of the oldest of the top 20 brands; Louis Vuitton is the oldest, but it has surged only in the past decade. General Electric, IBM, Disney, and Gillette have been around for a half a century, at least. And a group of high-tech companies that emerged in the PC/software era of the 1980s have had staying power, including Apple, Microsoft, Intel, and Oracle. Relative newcomers include Google and Amazon, having grown their presence mostly in the past decade.10

Hiring into brand strength. Some people are good at sports; others are not. Likewise, some people are good at being brand ambassadors—and others aren’t. OPPD’s brand strength starts with its employees and therefore begins at the hiring process. Burke notes that the utility’s interview process emphasizes a match to OPPD’s culture and brand focus. “We hire people who have demonstrated a focus in prior jobs on providing a superior customer experience and exceeding customer expectations,” he says. “By OPPD doing this screening on the front end, it’s much easier and more effective than trying to train someone who just doesn’t have customer service in their DNA, so to speak.” The benefits of such a process are clear: OPPD has strong employee retention and low turnover, is known as a great place to work in the Omaha area, and has a reputation for allowing employee growth and advancement in a market where other businesses, such as banking and insurance, compete for top employees, according to Burke.

Defining and rewarding brand excellence. The next logical move in building the brand from the inside out is to define the actions you want employees to take, and then set up a reward system so the outstanding employees strive to improve the brand every day, with every customer interaction and every product and system enhancement. SRP gives an example of providing pathways for employees to create exceptional brand experiences, down to the small details. It starts with a simple but powerful internal brand platform: “Committed to doing the right thing.”

Trimble explains, “When we think of any decision, we ask ourselves whether we are doing the right thing by our customers, our employees, and our community. This provides a consistent and defensible guide for our actions.” Supporting the brand platform are four “brand pillars” that further identify specific areas of action; every communication SRP does is filtered through these pillars as well as “committed to doing the right thing”:

  • Pillar 1: Responsibility as a water and energy partner
  • Pillar 2: Character and community
  • Pillar 3: Stewardship and reliability
  • Pillar 4: Customer care

OPPD told E Source about its reward system to continuously motivate and recognize employee brand stewardship. Burke described seven different categories of awards, recalling one particular agent who received an award for excellent customer service after a lengthy call with a customer whose air conditioning wasn’t working. “While this time investment might have been a negative at some companies, we see this as going beyond expectations—something that will be remembered forever by that customer and possibly even create a brand story they will tell to friends,” he said. “We do this to keep the employees motivated, and reward them for the things that we look for them to do every day.”

The tasks involved in building your brand internally and completely inlcude:

  • Creating an internal brand platform that is concise, while reflecting the core essence of what you want all employees to embrace;
  • Not only communicating this platform, but setting up systems to measure how each employee and activity meets this brand requirement, and then rewarding employees based on their success;
  • Setting up hiring processes to evaluate candidates based on their ability to enhance the customer experience and corporate brand; and
  • Establishing a brand champion within the organization whose job it is to continually invigorate the brand with employees.

Figure 6 depicts the growing advancement of customer needs and wants from utilities.

FIGURE 6: Hierarchy of utility brand attributes

Utility customers’ wishes begin with a fundamental core of electricity and gas delivery and then evolve until the utility is a core partner in their everyday lives and business.

Step 5: Create a Connection Between Your Company and Your Customers

“A great brand taps into emotions. Emotions drive most, if not all, of our decisions. A brand reaches out with a powerful connecting experience. It’s an emotional connecting point that transcends the product,” stated Scott Bedbury, a marketing executive formerly associated with brand powerhouses Nike and Starbucks.11 Though difficult to define, the emotional element of customers is unmistakable in a customer’s satisfaction and passion about a company. This emotional element comes through many different pathways, but advertising and customer experience dominate its evolution.

On the communications side, utilities are making constant decisions about the words and images used to promote the company as well as the products and services it offers. For example, when promoting a weatherization program for homes, a utility can focus on lower air infiltration, increasing R-values, and boosting efficiency of furnaces, or it could instead emphasize the coziness of a warm, safe home (Figure 7). At the corporate level, the utility can talk about how many miles of transmission lines it has, plans for smart grid upgrades, and investments in pollution-control equipment, or it could tout the work being done in community settings, the strategic vision for how energy integrates with people’s lives and businesses, and the low-income assistance that happens every year (Figure 8). Although various communications have different objectives, taking the emotional (non-engineering) approach should be weighed when considering building the long-term brand.

FIGURE 7: Communicating at a personal level

Enbridge has done a nice job depicting comfort and happiness and relating that tangentially to its services.

FIGURE 8: Emphasizing people over hardware

The bright face glowing under adverse conditions helps put a personal story behind Dominion's benefits to the community.

Our discussions with SRP and OPPD exposed a very passionate and exacting approach to their corporate communications. Every word, image, and customer interaction has a purpose: to support the brand and to enhance the customer experience. Of utilities we surveyed in the US, SRP scored highest for offering “programs that help customers manage their energy bills,” yet the company doesn’t have nearly the extensive portfolio of efficiency programs that many other utilities have. Trimble attributes that high score to several specific endeavors. First, SRP does extensive research on its customers so the utility can send the right messages to the right people and businesses at the right time. Trimble says, “We try hard to eliminate any messages to a targeted customer that they would not need, as that takes away from our brand. And we can only do this due to the investment we make in customer information.” The bottom line is that SRP makes sure its customers are aware of the choices they have, and that the marketing communications and customer service interactions are well orchestrated, with a consistent message.

On a similar note, OPPD scores very high on the attribute of “working hard to be environmentally friendly,” despite a generation mix that contains about 58 percent coal and less than 1 percent renewable energy12 (though Burke notes that OPPD just signed an agreement for 200 megawatts that will allow OPPD to meet its 10 percent renewable goal six years early, which will result in a generation mix with coal being closer to 65 percent, nuclear 25 percent, and renewable 10 percent). According to Burke, this status reflects the communications choice the utility has made. OPPD is pushing messages about its new wind turbines, and it operates the largest landfill gas project in Nebraska. Burke states, “We do a lot of messaging around our commitment to environmental friendliness and stewardship; it’s one of our strategic initiatives. We like to get the word out proactively about bad and good news, so we manage the message.”

Messaging becomes an integral part of the brand process; that includes all of the promotional materials that are created, but also the conversations a company has with its customers through the call center, its neighborhood outreach programs, the one-on-one encounters that happen with linemen and service reps, and every encounter with the stakeholders. The more consistent the message, the more likely it is that all of these customers will understand and believe in your brand, as opposed to straying off into their own vision of your company.

Branding Emblazed in Corporate Habit

Humans are all creatures of habit, and organizations create their own sets of habits as well. Habits can provide great benefits (such as positive service experiences) or negative consequences (such as pushing problems from one department to another). Habits are simply ways of coping with decisions and actions that circumvent typical decision-making. During a habitual process, the mind is not processing a lot of choices; it’s simply acting on patterns that have developed over time. The bottom line is that habits create resilient influences on companies, and it takes a very structured and consistent approach to break bad habits or create positive ones.

To truly create a strong, long-lasting brand, an organization’s habits must be identified and then altered and developed to support the brand strategy at every turn. In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,13 Charles Duhigg cites several examples, both good and bad, of corporate habits that profoundly affect the brand and customer experience. For example:

  • Starbucks learned that it needed to instill new, specific habits with employees to deal with angry customers. The company trained employees to follow five specific steps during these stressful interactions that had been pretested to create the best chance for a positive customer experience.
  • Aluminum producer Alcoa used what is known as a keystone habit—one that triggers a cascade of other actions and habits—to turn around a huge corporation. Surprisingly, Alcoa’s keystone habit was worker safety. In turn, safety improvements garnered process efficiencies, positive feedback loops for employees, and, most important, a companywide beacon to follow that every employee had in common.

In the end, creating a strong brand requires that the organization become habitually focused on providing an excellent customer experience. This is only possible when the brand permeates all departments with one unified strategy. Walt Disney recognized that above everything else, brand loyalty begins with an authentic relationship, an attitude that defined his theme parks from day one. For example, he discovered that “guests” would most often ask the street sweepers for directions, but that these employees were initially not seen as key customer service agents. That all changed, and now his company instills the brand and customer experience mantra and training to all employees. He knew that if the guests understood and believed that everyone in the organization cared about them and their business, they would be loyal to Disney forever.14

The utility is no different. As SRP and OPPD demonstrate, creating the brand from the inside out is critical. Linemen, customer service reps, human resources—all departments—are part of the overall customer experience. If the power goes out, that’s a negative customer experience that the distribution planners are responsible for. If a customer wants to know how to insulate their home, but gets passed from person to person when they call the utility for information, they are unlikely to call back. If someone feels that they have no choices or control over what they purchase and pay for each month, then their experience—and their vision of the company’s brand—will take a hit.

Every interaction is a potential springboard to creating a positive brand experience. By nurturing those habits throughout the organization and following along the path that has been laid by many other strong brands over the decades, utilities can make great strides in creating the energy companies that customers will demand in the 21st century.


1   Eric Savitz, “Apple Tops Ranking of World’s Most Valuable Brands,” Forbes (May 22, 2012),

2   Bill Keaggy, “Reddy Kilowatt Records at the Smithsonian, 1926–1999” (July 27, 2012),

3   Alaina McConnell and Kim Bhasin, “RANKED: The Most Popular Fast Food Restaurants in America,” Business Insider (July 12, 2012),

4   Jeffrey A. Tucker, “McDonald’s as the Paradigm of Progress,” Ludvig von Mises Institute (June 27, 2011),

5   Rachel Cooper and Chuntian Lu, “2012 E Source Utility Brand Strength Study: Rankings and Drivers,” E Source (June 2012)

6   “Protecting Brand Authenticity,” Build Brand Value: 1998 Conference Report, p. 3, (accessed October 15, 1998).

7   Chris Ciaccia, The Street, “Apple Maps Apology: Tim Cook’s Grand Slam,” Forbes (September 28, 2012),

8   Noli Balibalos, “From ‘geoLOGIC Customer Education’ to ‘geoLOGIC Customer Experience’: Whys and Wherefores,” geoLOGIC Systems (September 2012),

9   David D’Alessandro, Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand (McGraw-Hill, 2002).

10   Interbrand, “Best Global Brands 2012: The Top 100 Brands,” (accessed December 5, 2012).

11   Alan M. Webber, “What Great Brands Do,” Fast Company (August 1997),

12   Omaha Public Power District, “Powering Business Growth in Nebraska: To the Business Professional,” (accessed Dec. 5, 2012).

13   Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012).

14   Bruce I. Jones, “Brand Loyalty: Applying Disney’s Formula for Long-Lasting Success,” The Disney Institute, (accessed December 5, 2012).

Contributing Authors

Chief Instigation Agent

Bill LeBlanc draws on his experience in the energy industry to provide insight into where the industry is going and help create E Source...