Energy in 30: Aligning utility branding with industry transformation


Tune in to Energy in 30 hosted by Joan Collins and David Meisegeier. On our eleventh episode, "Aligning utility branding with industry transformation," hear from ICF Senior Partner of Integrated Communications Matt Silverman and Karen Cleeve, senior vice president of communications for PSEG, New Jersey’s largest utility. Together, they discuss PSEG’s recent brand refresh and how utilities can reposition themselves to better represent their values and the transformation that’s happening in the industry.

Topics in today’s episode include:

  • Aligning a brand refresh with business strategy to improve stakeholder interactions
  • Understanding shifting expectations for utilities
  • Branding as a representation of values and purpose
  • The PSEG origin story as inspiration for defining organizational DNA
  • Gaining buy-in from all employees to drive brand unity
  • Communicating a brand refresh to the public
  • C-suite support is a critical component to the process

Full transcript below:

David: Welcome everyone to Energy in 30. We'll use the next 30 minutes to explore how utilities in the industry are reacting to forces that are shaping new offerings for customers in order to meet decarbonization goals.

Joan: If you're a utility manager, a consultant, technology provider, or you're just curious about energy, our aim here is to push your thinking about the changes that are happening in the energy industry with me, Joan Collins.

David: And me, David Meisegeier.

Joan: David, how are you?

David: I'm doing great. My younger son came back from a semester in Tokyo on Wednesday, and it's nice to have a full house again.

Joan: Oh, that's great. How long was he there, David?

David: He was there five months and-

Joan: Oh wow.

David: ... he just loved it. Yeah, incredible experience.

Joan: I bet. I bet. Are the stories starting to flow?

David: Yes, and some pictures too. He had a really special time, so it was nice.

Joan: Oh, I love hearing that. I just think travel is the best education. It's just great.

David: Indeed. Indeed. And how about you? What's new with you?

Joan: I'm doing good. I'm doing good. It's a busy start to February and I realize there's one thing I've been meaning to mention to our audience, and that is that for those of you who tune in and listen, the bumper music was written by David Meisegeier. And I just wanted to give you that credit, David, because I think it really adds to this podcast, and I wanted to make sure that people knew that.

David: Well, thank you. And for those listening and reading, I'm blushing.

Joan: David didn't want me to say that. But I did anyway, so there you go. So let's dive in. We have such a great episode today. I think it's going to be really, really fun. And David, I think it's going to be an insightful discussion. So, we're switching things up and we're delving into how utilities are aligning their brands with the transformation that's happening in the industry and what their brands mean and how they use it. And who better to have on than our guests today, who are true experts in this area, including Matt Silverman, who's a senior partner, who leads brand and reputation strategy for ICF. And Matt has led brand development for many utilities as well as other Fortune 500 companies. And he really gets you thinking, saying things like, "A brand isn't about a logo, it's about behavior."

David: Yeah, and I'm sure we're going to hear more about that. And joining Matt as a guest, we have Karen Cleeve on. Karen is the VP of corporate communications at PSEG Services Corporation, which serves customers in New Jersey and Long Island. Karen brings over 20 years of visionary communications leadership with a successful track record of developing and driving communication strategies for leading brands such as NRG Energy, GE Capital, IBM, and FedEx, just to name a few. Karen's been a trusted advisor to C-suite executives across a broad spectrum of industries. We're really excited to have her on as well.

Joan: Oh, we really are. And Karen and Matt were both invited because they're actively working together to lead the brand refresh of PSEG, and so we thought it'd be great to hear from them to discuss the work that they're doing together and really just about brand transformation as a whole. So, welcome.

David: Yes, welcome.

Matt: Well, so happy to be here and especially with my colleague Karen, who is a joy to work with.

Karen: He has to say that but thank you, and I'm really excited to be here too. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Aligning a brand refresh with business strategy to improve stakeholder interactions

David: Matt and Karen, this work that you're doing together sounds really interesting. Can you give us some insight on what leading a brand refresh at PSEG really means, and how you're doing it

Karen: So, let me step back for a second and just talk a little bit about, for us, this decision was kind of a long time coming. We probably haven't taken a look at our brand in a while, in probably a couple decades. And so, it was time for us to take a hard look at refreshing the brand. We were—so about a year ago or so, we were emerging as a company with a refreshed business strategy. We had just sold off all of our fossil fuel generation. We were also developing goals around clean energy and Race to Zero, and we were very much focused on ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] leadership. So, with all those things kind of converging at the same time, we thought we better start rethinking how we're positioning ourselves and what the brand actually stands for. And so, we reached out to ICF and Matt and just started talking about what we needed to do to go through this process.

And for us, because we're now kind of at the tail end of it, which is great, and we'll be launching shortly in about a month or so. But for us, it was really the opportunity to just improve our interactions and create consistent interactions with all of our stakeholders—from customers to investors, politicians, regulators, our current and future employees. We’ll have a nice, consistent brand umbrella that really talks to what we stand for. So that's just setting the stage for everything. But I don't know, Matt, do you want to talk a little bit about the process as we kicked it off?

Understanding shifting expectations for utilities

Matt: Well, the process really involves diving deep. We look at, do some research, obviously look at current, existing research—but we're trying to understand what's going on with consumers, what's going on in the industry overall, and just what's going on in society, to understand what are people's expectations from their utility. Because we think, as the industry is transforming, mostly in response to climate change, we think people's expectations are changing too, for leading companies like PSEG. It used to be that folks like PSEG, it was all about reliability and reliability is really important, but we think there's something bigger than that—something bigger for the utilities to lead. And there are bigger expectations these days from customers. And so, our job was to try to understand all that and unpack what was uniquely true and authentic about PSEG and how is that brand promise and the things that they deliver to their customers changing and need to evolve, and how do we modernize them for the future? So those are the things we started thinking about.

David: So, as somebody who is not from the world of communications or branding or even marketing for that matter, what is the distinction between a brand and marketing?

Karen: Matt, do you want to start?

Branding as a representation of values and purpose

Matt: Yeah, I think marketing is traditionally about driving a transaction. It's about getting a customer to buy something, a service or a product. And brand development is really something deeper. Fundamentally, a brand begins with values. Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? And those values, when acted upon, result in behavior. If you act on your values consistently, people know what to expect from you. And if you think about any brand that you love or any company that you're loyal to, it's typically not only because they deliver a really good service or a good product, but oftentimes and even more so these days, you're committed to a bigger purpose and you live that purpose.

And so that's why we talk about a brand being like a “true north” for a company, both internally and externally. It's an alignment. It's a way to align your employees around a sense of purpose and why they show up to work every day. And it's also that promise that you make and deliver to your customers and all your stakeholders that you're consistent in the way you behave. And that's what we talk about when we say, “living your brand.” It's not just about words. It's really about actions first and then being able to tell the story about it so people know what you're doing, and they can really commit and believe in who you are and what you stand for.

Karen: And just to build off of that, one of the things that we have seen over the past couple years that seems to be evolving in society is that customers really want to work with companies that have a purpose. So Matt was touching on that. And employees also want to work for companies that have some kind of purpose that they can all relate to.

David: Absolutely.

Karen: And so that's one more reason why we really needed to take a look and refresh our brand because, for years, especially in New Jersey, the utilities have been regulated. And so, customers don't have to choose—they're just automatically working with us. So, because of that, I think there was, at certain points in time, not as much of an effort to market to customers. Building relationships, sure, but marketing to them and talking to them about the brand and what we do wasn't really on the table. And so through that evolution, we recognize that now is really the time that we need to continue because we've always been a customer-focused company, but we really need to reestablish ourselves with our customers and all of our stakeholders so they understand what we stand for.

David: Hmm, fascinating.

Joan: No, it's great. Yeah, we hear over and over how utilities are a trusted source, a trusted energy advisor to their customers over anything—all the research points to that. And I think that's ever-changing, and your customers are ever-changing, the demographics of customers. So, I think it just sounds like great timing, but it sounds like such a big endeavor. It really does. What have been some of the biggest challenges and opportunities as you've moved down this path?

The PSEG origin story as inspiration for defining organizational DNA

Karen: So I will say we started the effort, and first of all this—I think the most important thing to know when you are stepping into this process is there's a ton of education that has to happen for leadership, for employees, so they understand what we're doing. I think the brand is a little bit—there's kind of uncertainty about what a brand is. So Matt explains kind of what it is, but unless you, again, live in the world of marketing communications, you're not really thinking through that. You really attribute it to the logo and maybe what things look like, but it obviously goes so much deeper than that.

So with starting with just educating our leadership and employees about what the process is and what we're doing, and then Matt and team came on board and just led us through this lengthy process, but really dove deep into the company. And Matt, I'm going to turn it over to you so you can talk through that and I just want to make sure that you reference the story that you heard at the very beginning of our origin.

Matt: Yeah.

Karen: And then what you heard all the way through because this was so fascinating to me.

Matt: Well, part of our process—Karen's right—is we did a deep dive, some interviews with company executives as well as just day-to-day folks in the business. That included folks who were in the union and who are not in the union. And we always say that the brand lives within the company. We're not trying to take something from the outside and apply it. Our job is just to uncover what's already in there. And I like to say, "It's like the DNA in the company." And one of the things we heard about was people talked about the founding of the company. This is more than a hundred years ago. And there's this origin story about how PSEG started. And very briefly, that was the early 1900s and the advent of trolley cars were coming about and as a mode of transportation. And this was a new burgeoning and there was a bunch of businesses popping up and there was this terrible accident where nine kids were killed.

And there were these leaders in the community that said, "We have got to stop this. This is a terrible accident. Who's supervising all these trolley cars? Who's making sure they're safe? How are we organizing this so our communities and our families can be safe?" And that was the very beginning of how PSEG started. It was a response to protect the community, a response to serve the community. And so there is this origin story that stays true today—that is very much felt—this sense of responsibility to serve the public. So then that's the name—Public Service—that's the original name of the company. It wasn't Public Service Electric and Gas; it was Public Service.

And so, I've heard a number of stories of how that ethos—that willingness to take responsibility—for serving the community and protecting the community, has lived on through the decades. Now mind you, the founders are long since gone, but there's this ethos that lives in the company today that when you talk to many people, they really feel this public service commitment and this drive to respond in an emergency. And it was just really fascinating to me to see how it's lived on through the generations. And that's when you've come on something authentic and those are the real brand values.

David: Wow, that's amazing. It strikes me that part of what you're trying to do is drive corporate culture change. And I'm wondering, in doing that, or how you envision—because it sounds like you're about to launch this—how far down do you drive messaging guidance? Do you provide guidance to a different department, or will you be providing guidance to different departments and employees, unexpected behavior that supports the brand? Because you talk about values, how do you effectively communicate what you expect employees to manifest that as?

Gaining buy-in from all employees to drive brand unity

Karen: Yep. Well, so it's interesting because, first of all, you're right on—we are absolutely, this will really help unify our culture. And the timing is great because during the pandemic, a lot of us started working at home. There were still plenty of folks that were in the office and the folks that are out in the field, so the line workers and the meter readers and all these folks that were still out doing their normal day-to-day work. So as a company, we continue to evolve through that and the brand and developing this brand refresh is absolutely about the evolution of the company and the culture. So as Matt was talking about where we came from and the origin story about public service, we needed to, first of all, make sure that as we were going through this process, we didn't lose sight of that and the culture and the legacy of the company. But now we're evolving into something that's modernizing ourselves, that's aligning us for the future.

And so, getting everybody—all of our employees—on board to unify them. And, in order to do that, we do have to communicate this throughout the entire company. And so, we started with a new vision and mission statement actually right before we started the brand process, which is probably a little bit different than what you would normally do. But we felt like we got that done. And that was the aha moment where it was like, "You know what? We need to actually look at the whole brand, everything that we're doing." So we had gone through a process where we launched the vision and mission throughout the company, and it has been a year-long effort. There is constant communication around how we utilize it, how it's relevant to every single person in the company. So we will be doing the same thing as we launch the brand and making sure that there are steps that we take.

There's training that we have to do for the folks that are—actually for the marketers and the communicators and the legal teams and anybody that's going to touch and actually design things and utilize that. But there's also education that's got to happen for everybody. And so up to our CEO and all throughout the company, they have to understand how this applies to them, why it's relevant to everybody. And so it’s absolutely something for everybody to rally around. We will have a constant stream of communication through, again, trainings, videos, general messaging. And so to your question before on messaging: we'll have consistent umbrella messaging around who we are. And so our entire company will be able to understand that and we have internal communications work that we do that will gather everybody on board with that.

Matt: David, just go ahead.

David: Sorry, Matt, if I could ask a follow-up. And I actually have a follow-up for you on that one, Matt. So the flip side of it, and that's the public. Once everything that Karen just talked about happens and everybody internally is aligned, what do you do to the public? Do you tell them about your brand? Do you show them about your brand through your words and your actions? Or is it a combination of both?

Communicating a brand refresh to the public

Matt: Yeah, absolutely a combination of both. I think, as a matter of fact, it was kind of funny. When we did focus group testing, some of our message testing and what the people in New York and New Jersey—should be no surprise to anyone—told us was, "Cut the BS, just give it to us straight and prove it to me." They were very much like, "Talk is cheap. And so if you're going to claim something, you better tell me what you're actually doing. I want to know." Because they don't really know what the utilities are doing. They're not paying active attention. And so I think in a best world, it's actions first and words second, because people have enough puffery in their life and enough people blowing smoke and they really want to know, substantively, what's happening.

In a world, where climate change is actually really becoming more and more important to the community, they're looking for leaders. I mean, there's data out there that's really clear. I think it's 75% of Americans saying they want CEOs to do something about reducing carbon emissions. I mean, more than ever, they are trusting businesses to solve problems because they've lost trust in the government. And so there's opportunities for folks like PSEG to lead, but they need to take action. And then there's this great opportunity to tell that story to people to make sure they know what's going on and have two-way communication and maybe find ways to involve the community in that. But we talk about energy transformation. Well, transformation is not only happening in the grid, but transformation has to happen in our communities. And there are companies like PSEG that have the power, literally and figuratively, to make really significant change. And so I think actions first and great communication afterwards is really important.

Joan: You're both so passionate about this, it just comes right through. And I would think that there's a lot of trust that the two of you have built together because you are really in kind of a caretaker role of something very important. I can't believe we're already coming here close to the end of our 30 minutes, we always say we needed to call this Energy in 60 because there's never enough time…

Matt: Part two coming up.

Joan: ...I know, I know—

Karen: We'll come back.

David: Awesome.

Joan: ...always. You're always welcome back. But I'm just wondering, along the way, one of the things we always like to ask is, if there's one thing that you can change in the industry, like no limits, what would it be? If we modify that slightly for this discussion, if there's one thing you could change in this process and recommendation that you could give to other utilities walking through this process or getting ready to, maybe we could start with you, Matt, and then have Karen wrap it up?

Matt: Sure. Wow. One thing, it's a little hard, I think…

Joan: Be nice. Be nice, Matt.

Internal communication as the key to driving rebranding forward

Matt: ...Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I think Karen touched on it earlier. I think education and communication about what we're doing and why it's important really matters. I think people have to see this as not just a communications and marketing function that we're just going to check the box and do. I think if it's done right and done well, it needs investment from the whole organization. And that means folks like Karen and I have to do a really good job of communicating the importance and the value of what we're doing and helping people understand. I think, matter of fact, Karen and I had a discussion yesterday with her team and we keep seeing we have to over-communicate internally about what's going on, what's happening, what are the next steps. And, as hard as we're working to do that, it just seems like it's never enough. And so we just have to keep telling our story internally because, while Karen's leading it, it's going to take a team of people to help drive this forward and they have to be brought along in the process and it just never seems we can do enough of that.

Karen: Yeah, no, I think that that's right on. And the thing I forgot to mention earlier is that, as we were going through this process, we were going through a CEO transition.

Joan: Oh, wow.

C-suite support is a critical component to the process

Karen: And thankfully, both of them, so our incoming CEO, has been with the company for 35 years, so it made it easier. He was in a position of chief operating officer before he became CEO, so he was already part of the process. But, I have to say, having the support of that entire C-suite through this was critical because, there are a lot of the decision-makers in there. But, also making sure that they understand and can help trickle down and show support for what we're doing was really important. And it is, it's all about communication and bringing them along on the journey.

I mean, we think back to the folks that, when we were interviewing employees in the very beginning of this process and taking the time to give them a quick update. "Hey, here's what we heard from you. This is what happened. This is what we did." And so trying to keep folks updated along the way. So when we finally do get to the end of this process, they'll recognize, "Oh, I was part of this. I get this." So that's the kind of stuff that you have to remember. So I'm not sure I would change anything, but I would make sure that folks just absolutely have to recognize that communication and education is the most critical part of this whole process.

David: That's awesome. I know that was supposed to be the last question, but I'm dying to ask this question. How do you measure your success?

Joan: Ooh, that's a good one.

Establishing baseline understanding and awareness of your brand with key constituents

Matt: There are brand trackers. I mean, there's lots of ways to do it, but if you get to me from a real technical implementation, there are mechanisms to establish baseline understanding and awareness of your brand with key constituents. And again, that's everyone from community leaders to customers, regulators, investors, people we serve, and what do they know about the company and what the company stands for, trying to measure—oftentimes companies, there's a few key topics they want to emphasize, and you can test for awareness and understanding of those topics and see how it tracks over time. I mean, there's plenty of tracking in the industry. JD Power does lots of surveys and customer satisfaction is always important, but I think brand tracking always takes on a little bit of a different flavor from that. And so developing brand trackers becomes important to measure the things that you are specifically trying to get out there.

And also, I think just in the community and the people you're serving, are you making the impact that you're saying you're going to make? I think, if we're being community-oriented, how are we measuring that? So oftentimes it's sentiment and attitudes to understand brand, but also there might be more substantive impact even around energy like efficiency goals and those things. So there's a lot to unpack there. But...

David: That makes perfect sense. Karen, I'm not going to put you on the spot to tell us what your actual goals are, but if there's anything you want to chime in on.

Karen: I think foundationally, if I look at it as a phased approach, because I know that it takes a while to get everything rolling. But I will say, for me, one of the biggest wins will be a consistent look and feel and a set of messaging that comes out from this company. And it is down to whether the sponsorships that we do make sense, they fit into the brand—the why we're doing that. We're not popping up in some random place that, "Why are they sponsoring that?" Here, we're going to be under one umbrella and we're aligned internally and then externally. People begin to recognize and understand who we are. So we will absolutely be doing a lot of those measurements, surveys, things like that to quantify how we're doing. But even, like I said, even just people recognizing that, "Oh, that's got to be PSEG because it looks like whatever." So there you go. We'll take that. That will be an easy win.

Joan: We love the wins. I've traveled a lot, meeting with utilities over the years and one of the favorite things I like to do is, on my way to meet, usually I'll ask the driver, "Hey, tell me about your utility?" And it's amazing the things I hear like, "Oh my gosh." I was in Jackson Hole and they said, "Oh my gosh, we just got two new electric buses." I mean, they were very excited about that. And to me, again, that's behavior, right? It's coming through. They're noticing this, and to me, that's a win.

David: That's really cool. And what a good tip, Joan. I'm going to have to start doing that now too. This has been a fascinating conversation. I personally have learned a lot about what a brand is, the importance of a brand both internally and externally, and I really want to thank you guys for sharing your insights and your stories.

If you've liked this podcast, you might be interested in our recent article on how utilities can build authentic customer connections through account-based marketing by Kelly Zonderwyk. We'll link to it on our podcast page. And as always, if you've enjoyed this conversation as much as we have, which is really two thumbs up, we would sure appreciate you liking, sharing, and even subscribing to our podcast.

Joan: And thank you again, so much, Matt and Karen for joining us. You’ve got me thinking about my own personal brand. And thanks to all of you for listening, and we look forward to you tuning in to our next Energy in 30.

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Meet the authors
  1. David Meisegeier, Vice President, Finance and Smart Homes Programs

    David helps innovate customer-centric energy programs that meet utilities’ current and future needs, with nearly 30 years of experience in the energy industry. View bio

  2. Matt Silverman, Senior Partner, Brand and Reputation Strategy

    Matt is an expert in brand, marketing, and corporate communications strategy with more than 20 years of experience. View bio