Electric utilities face a perplexing marketing challenge. We—their customers—do not clamor for their product even though it’s essential to our health, comfort and prosperity. Instead, we take electricity for granted; it’s invisible to us. We use it constantly but don’t think about it.
What we do think about is “a hot shower and cold beer” in the famous words of Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. We may not care about electrons, but we want the comforts electrons provide.
This problem is nothing new, but it’s being discussed now as an array of new—and sometimes perplexing—electricity products beckon to electricity consumers. Green or conventional energy? On-site or grid power? Competitive energy or utility service? Should I join a community aggregation? How about a solar garden? How can I save the most energy—LEDs, energy displays, smart thermostats or more efficient appliances?
What I choose not only affects my electricity bill but also influences the health of the grid. For example, well-timed and managed use of home energy storage systems can ease the overload on the grid during periods of peak demand. This helps utilities avoid use of expensive, and often polluting, emergency generators. Or energy efficiency, undertaken on a mass scale but aligned with and targeted to grid needs, can help utilities reduce power purchases and build fewer power plants. Massachusetts calculated that spending $8.1 billion on energy efficiency would avert $14.4 billion in new infrastructure and energy purchases over eight years.
Utilities have more experience and knowledge in maintaining grid health than any other energy players. They can act as our guides in the new landscape, but only if they can capture our attention.
So given that we’re indifferent to their product, what can utilities do (short of offering us cold beers) to encourage our engagement?
Here are seven strategies that we’ve found to be successful as we work with utilities around the country.
1. Introduce me to you.
Tell me your company’s big story. Inspire me. Who are you beyond the purveyor of ‘invisible’ electrons?
“Utilities struggle telling the story about how they impact somebody’s life on a day-to-day basis,” said Jeff Adams, ICF senior vice president. “They need to show us the value they bring to the individual and the family.”
Facts and figures, alone, won’t do this. As Nick Morgan, author of the book “Power Cues”, points out in Harvard Business Review, “all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.” What does stick—and engage people—are compelling stories with a message, in a utility’s case, one that reflects and upholds the values and aspirations of its customers.
2. Watch your language.
In my mind, I'm not a ratepayer—a common term used by utilities. I’m a consumer, community member, student, business owner, healthcare worker, etc. Talk to me, the person, not the bill payer. Electric utilities are highly regulated. For decades much of their important communication has been with state commissions and policymakers. So they tend to fall back on language familiar within only that small universe.
3. Avoid “can’t do” arguments.
Consider how customers reacted in recent consumer focus groups with the Edison Electric Institute. They rejected statements that suggested using 100 percent renewables is technically impossible. But when the idea was reframed in a way that suggested “can-do”—just not right now—they reacted favorably. They liked this phrase:
A balanced energy mix helps us maintain consistent service for our customers and avoids over-reliance on a single fuel type or technology. This means we’re able to bring our customers increasingly more renewable energy without asking them to compromise on reliability or cost.
4. Upsell products that I want.
Make me aware of why it’s best to buy them from my utility—a familiar and trusted expert. Some popular newer products are:
- Green pricing programs
- Community solar
- Smart thermostats
- Electric vehicle chargers
- Energy efficiency devices
5. Be timely.
Catch me when I need a product. For example, don’t try to sell me a more efficient air conditioning system if I just installed one last year. Use data analytics to determine the right time to market to me based on my energy use, age of home, etc.
6. Appeal to my better nature.
Customers increasingly respond to “public good” messages. Millennials, for example, are narrowing the gap between environmental concern and consumer action.
So educate me about why my behavior on the grid influences its overall health and therefore the greater society. If I’m inefficient, it will cost everyone. Position the grid is a shared asset—and a life support system for society.
7. Show me why.
Remember that technology has little meaning to me unless I interact with it. For example, I may not see the point of a smart meter until I can employ time-of-use pricing. Then I see how smart meters allow for clear price signals that enable me to use energy in a way that saves money for my household—and everyone else on the grid.