Putting utility back in utilities

Andrew Welch


noun: the state of being useful, profitable or beneficial

A utility. A commodity. A low-involvement product. Call it what you will, electricity and the brands associated with it barely register with customers. But that’s all about to change, as the energy sector undergoes a seismic shift. The category as we know it will be unrecognizable in the not too distant future.

Some key changes are driving this shift. Electricity is increasingly being used as a source of heat, light and mobility. This will see both the oil majors and the traditional utility companies competing more keenly for your dollar. Add to this the entry of multiple new players innovating how the world generates, stores and consumes power. At the same time, individuals are gaining more control over their energy choices. With this cocktail, what was once a tightly controlled category with a limited number of suppliers will become complex and fragmented.

To capture a share of this market, energy brands will have to stop being utilities and start offering utility. But how?

They’ll become educators

Brands will play a leading role in guiding customers as they start to navigate the emerging landscape.

Energy consumers—once the passive receivers of a standard, one-size-fits-all product—will soon be able to exercise far more control over their involvement. They may want to specify the source of their energy. They may decide to generate their own electricity to sell back to the grid at a profit, or “top up” an energy plan as you would a data plan. Owners of electric vehicles may want the option to use charging stations as part of their utility package.

Does any of this sound familiar yet? The transition here is not unlike that from POTS (plain old telephone service) to multifunction smartphones—meaning there’s a learning curve for consumers.

And this is where brand steps in—to help people understand the many possibilities. Brands can demonstrate their value with transparent contracts, intuitive, convenient interfaces, and up-to-date, reliable information. By making it easy for consumers to choose the packages and options that work best for them, brands can win loyalty and unlock new revenue sources, just like the tech giants have done in simplifying digital.

Owners of electric vehicles may want the option to use charging stations as part of their utility package

They’ll define a new language

If you never knew what the hell a kilowatt was, take heart: it may not matter much longer. Energy brands have a prime opportunity to differentiate themselves by developing user-friendly lexicons that fit the new choices.

What unit of energy does it take to supply power to a single-family home for one month? What will it be called? What unit will charge an electric vehicle for 20 miles of city driving? Speaking to consumers in down-to-earth, accessible language sets the tone for positive business interactions. And informed customers make wiser choices—choices that can benefit the environment and their wallets at the same time.

They’ll drive appeal

Brand will also play a pivotal role in changing perceptions and generating excitement. With the installation of a Tesla Powerwall, for example, what was once an ugly piece of equipment hidden in the garage is suddenly a design feature. Aesthetics will become a major driver of choice in a field whose products have in the past been largely invisible. Winning brands will find ways to make energy provision a self-expressive benefit that reflects personal values.

Gary Bryant

They’ll generate value

The more ways an energy company can create value for consumers, the better chance it has of competing successfully. The standout brands will win by educating the public, driving interest and offering desirable options in this rapidly evolving category.

Will the existing energy companies choose to adapt and lead the establishment of a fresh set of rules, or will new players from adjacent categories muscle in and disrupt their game? The telecom industry used to be all about a few big landline providers; now one of the biggest players is a computer company started in a garage in Cupertino.

There’s a new game in town

Energy is about to get exciting. It’s about to enter new arenas. The brands that win will shift from being utilities to being useful, expressive and engaging brands, shaped around you.