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Utilities Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Here’s how simple (but not simplistic) brands are bringing light to the energy sector

By Matt Gibbs, Senior strategist



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March 20, 2024 | 5 min read

The utility companies that survived the energy crisis offered simple brand experience, says Matt Gibbs at Siegel+Gale. Add purpose to the mix for best in class.

A pylon viewed from below making an abstract pattern

/ Shane Rounce via Unsplash

Simplicity isn't something that comes naturally to the utilities sector. We know that at Siegel+Gale: every year we compile a simplicity index. This year, the energy industry ranked 17 of 25 of UK industries in terms of simplicity, down from 16 in 2021. That's despite our research showing a 'simplicty premium' of 7%, the extra customers will pay for a simple energy experience. But it's clear that the utilities sector is underperforming when it comes to delivering this.

The industry has had a rocky few years. In 2021, it seemed a quiet revolution was underway. Many of the fastest growing brands in the sector were start-ups and challenger brands. Bulb, Octopus and Ovo had successfully competed with the ‘Big Six’: they were digitally native, and offered great customer service, as well as green tariffs. Not to mention being good for all-round value. A future where these challenger brands would continue to grow, taking share from the industry’s traditional players, looked possible.

The lights went out for the energy industry

And then everything changed. Russia's invasion of Ukraine coupled with increased demand for energy as the world’s economies reopened from Covid restrictions to shake the energy market. This perfect storm ripped through most facets of the UK economy from heavy industry, to farms and factories. Fears of a wave of energy suppliers collapsing soon came true and households were spared unaffordable bills only through dramatic last-minute government intervention – and a warmer than expected winter. But the biggest impact was on the utility brands themselves.

At the time, I was reminded of the Warren Buffett quote on businesses in recessions: "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.” Looking at the impact of the energy crisis on utilities brands for me raised the question: Did any of these brands care about a simple consumer experience? Did the principle run through the decisions they took or did they employ it only for show?

A number of energy companies went bust, impacting millions of customers. Despite having set benchmarks for what it meant to be a modern utilities brand, businesses like Bulb and People's Energy struggled, before eventually stopping operations. Many of their customers were re-absorbed by the ‘Big Six’ – the very companies the new-school providers had fought against.

Those that survived were the simplest

Long-time simplicity champions Octopus and Ovo managed the storm, and came out stronger and more resilient for it. Octopus has always been about more than just the cheapest energy prices as shown by its mission to power the world's transition to renewable energy. It was always more than just words. They are one of Europe’s largest investors in green energy, managing enough to power some two million homes.

They’re not stopping there either and work with consumers to support the adoption of green technologies such as EVs and heat pumps. This is wrapped in a simple, transparent, and intuitive experience, all delivered in plain English. However, a fall of 74 places in the UK’s simplest brands demonstrates that no brand survived the energy crisis unscathed.

Appeal to the heart and head of your customers

Unlike some peers and competitors, Octopus’s mission was always clear, single-minded and ambitious. They were always here to do more than just be a cheaper alternative. They were here to move the world forwards, attracting customers who recognized the need for our energy systems to become smarter, resilient, and more sustainable – as well as being great value and offering excellent customer service. Octopus speaks to both the heart and head of their customers.

At Siegel+Gale, we are all too aware of the subtle but important distinction between a simple brand, and a simplistic one. With complex challenges to face over the past 18 months, it would be wrong to say the fates of energy companies have been decided on brand alone. But given the value of simplicity – and the resilience and creativity it fosters – should we be surprised that two brands consistently recognized for simplicity have survived, and even strengthened business, over the last 18 months? I for one, am not.

Utilities Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

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Siegel+Gale is a global branding company headquartered in NYC. Our core expertise spans brand development, brand strategy, design, and customer experience.

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