First Utility to promote itself like a brand to prove it really wants people to be on cheaper bills

To stand apart from its rivals and assure the public it’s not a monument to capitalism, First Utility is defining its brand for the first time to actively encourage people to switch supplier.

Most of the so called ‘big six’ suppliers don’t want really want people to switch as evidenced by the ‘lethargic’ way they promote their services, claimed head of marketing Paul Cable. It’s part of the reason why 40 per cent of the country has never switched supplier alongside regulatory interventions such as four-tariff rule failing to stimulate interest in energy consumption.

And yet those people who do turn to First Utility save an average of £284 a year, claimed Cable. There are clearly people out there engaged enough to hunt for cheaper deals though there’s an even bigger market to sell to if it can convert those that aren’t engaged. Previous efforts helped it snatch a 4 per cent share of the market but for all the company’s campaigns for its larger rivals to change there was a lack of focus on what it stood for beyond that.

Not anymore; the company has channelled that challenger mindset into communicating the message that all energy does the same so people shouldn’t pay more. Formed in partnership with VCCP, the £5m campaign breaks today (4 January) and teases the self-aware tone First Utility hopes will set it apart from the usual advertising tropes of the sector.

“Other ads in this category mirror the business model of the incumbent suppliers - keep customers disengaged and reassure them that everything is going to be okay,” claimed Cable.

While the ‘big six’ have pumped millions into rebranding themselves as consumer champions, none have done so using a mock energy company – HD Electricity. The company as the ad explains has harnessed the unicorn’s “super conductor powers” to make “street lights shine whiter”, televisions brighter” and “food cook quicker”. The lofty claims are coupled with cinematic shots of unicorns before the company is dismissed a lie with a voiceover saying “there’s no such a thing as a unicorn. So why pay more” over text that reads “All electricity does the same”. It’s a tongue in cheek riff on the idea that marketing has been used to convince people to pay more for energy when they don’t have to, an issue exemplified by the campaign strapline ‘knowledge is power’.

The mantra will run across outdoor and what Cable calls “disruptive press formats” whereby the ads will be tied to the editorial around it - a unicorn horn poking into an article for instance. There’s also digital, which is set to play a pivotal role in keeping customer churn down following overhauls of First Utility’s web and mobile platforms.

Mobile’s role is being rapidly expanded, with Cable referring to the business as “mobile-first” that will see gamifcation used to get people to take more of an interest in their energy usage. On the app front, First Utility’s customers can use it to read their metres – a source of frustration for many – so that they don’t have to. And the more regular reads it gets, the more accurate it can bills and ultimately share helpful data and insights with them on an ongoing basis.

“Just as our brand proposition is all about engaging and empowering customers by putting them in control, our ad seeks to do the same and grab people’s attention,” said Cable.

A clearer brand could also help tackle any concerns that may arise should the firm’s rumoured IPO occur early next year.

First Utility, like other smaller players like Ovo, has been on a fast growth trajectory from a low awareness base in recent years, an upsurge underpinned by the hardening view that the larger suppliers don’t care about their customers. Whether this is a fair assessment or not, First Utility has undoubtedly benefited from the attitudinal shift and is moving from speaking to those likely to frequent switching sites to households that are unaware that they’re overpaying.

The latest strategy then attempts to address some of the issues flagged in the Competition and Markets Authority’s provisional findings of a yearlong investigation into the sector. It concluded that some energy companies know they don’t have to work hard to keep customers and that many don’t shop around because they aren’t engaged enough in the category.

However, First Utility is not without its issues; a survey by consumer charity Citizens Advice earlier this year found the UK’s biggest independent supplier to be one of the worst over a course of three months for complaints – it had about 420 complaints for every 100,000 customers. Cable acknowledged the report before talking up other surveys such as uSwitch and TrustPilot which the business had scored highly on.

“Being a challenger brand is about attitude, not size,” added Cable. “Wherever we can improve this industry for the good of all households we will. We see our role as trying to keep the rest of the industry honest and challenging anything we see that isn’t in customers’ best interests.”

Seb Joseph

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