If you walked in late on the final morning of the Gridwise Global Forum conference, you may have been confused. Instead of a panel about communications standards or Volt/var control, there was a Pampers ad playing on a large TV screen.
The diaper ad was no mistake, nor was the Old Spice commercial that came next. The speaker, Bob McDonald, President and CEO of Procter & Gamble, was talking about something utilities don't know a lot about: reaching customers. He does not mean text alerts or calls during outages. He means reaching into their souls so they come to define themselves through their electricity provider, the way they define themselves by their brand of laptop or smartphone. Although he did not explicitly mention Mad Men or the influence of current-day Madison Avenue, the suggestion was that that was exactly what is missing from the organizational culture of most utilities.
Of course, electrical utilities, which keep the lights on and ensure safety and reliability, are not consumer brands. In many places in the U.S., they are still monopolies. But if regulation changes, as many say it needs to, they will likely have to move that way. In an earlier panel, Eric Dresselhuys of Silver Spring Networks said that Pacific Gas & Electric did not allocate any specific funds to smart meter education outreach in their smart grid deployment plan. When Baltimore Gas & Electric's smart grid plan was finally approved a few years after PG&E had suffered missteps, it included about $50 million for consumer education and outreach (including a web portal and other engagement tools).
McDonald, however, was not talking about door hangers, a Facebook page and a consumer web portal. People are driven by much more. There is a common perception that once customers start clamoring for smart appliances (which are smart about much more than electricity), it will be easier for utilities to deliver smart grid services. But that is not how the world works, McDonald implied. People don't know what they need; emotion plays a large part in shopping.
At a conference earlier in the year, David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, also asserted that cleantech companies, not just utilities, need to rethink the message to the consumer. The goal, he said, should be to sell the "cool" factor to people, rather than relying on green messages or the notion that consumers will be rational about future energy prices.
People didn't line up to buy the first $600 iPhone because they'd get a good deal on their cell phone bill down the road. Take Procter & Gamble. Every one of the company's product campaign is either based around significant work with focus groups to find out what people value about its brands or creative campaigns that can redefine classic products, such as the extremely successful Old Spice campaign ("Smell Like a Man, Man").
Some utilities, like the retail electric provider Reliant Energy (owned by NRG Energy), are playing around with video campaigns. Although they are creative by utility standards, they are not half as entertaining as the 30-second Old Spice ads. Others are actively building their Facebook pages (Reliant, despite funny videos, still garners plenty of angry customer comments on their page). But until regulation changes, running a significant ad budget and producing glossy campaigns will be outside the realm of many utilities.
But that doesn't mean utilities should be idle. Some utilities are starting by just changing their language. Susan Story, CEO of Southern Company, said they call it smart energy, not smart grid, because smart grid means nothing to customers.
Changing terminology is just one step. In the current regulatory climate, there is still a lot that can be done. To get started, McDonald offered these five steps to the audience on a PowerPoint slide -- which many conference attendees took a picture of with their beloved iPhones.
1. Guide brands with a purpose
2. Shift to serving people
3. Redefine who you serve
4. Focus on understanding people
5. Develop inspiring big ideas