British Gas marketing director Will Orr on improving public perception of his brand and the energy sector
The former adman is keen to promote the energy supplier as a positive force for Britain, writes Matt Chapman.
Will Orr, marketing director, British Gas
Horror stories about pensioners being unable to afford heating this winter have again made the energy sector Britain's 'big bad wolf'. Discontent has been driven by accusations of profiteering from politicians and of grandstanding from Ofgem chief executive Alistair Buchanan, leaving the major energy brands facing a fight to improve public perception.
The brand image of British Gas will be tested next week when it reports its annual results, with profits forecast to be a headline-grabbing £1bn.
The daunting task of creating a public face for the brand falls to former adman Will Orr. Promoted to marketing director in September, Orr is far removed from the public's stereotype of energy sector 'fat cats'.
The 'big six' suppliers - British Gas, E.ON, EDF Energy, NPower, SSE and Scottish Power - received a brief respite from the public ire when they lowered their prices last month. However, even this drew cries of foul play from some, as the price reductions were significantly smaller than the autumn hikes that preceded them.
Indeed, as evidence of public sentiment toward this sector, one need look no further than the taxi driver who took Marketing to British Gas' Staines headquarters for this interview. His parting shot was ominous: 'Don't let them bully you.'
Far from bullying, however, British Gas is on a charm offensive. It was left to quickly follow suit after EDF Energy beat the rest of the big six to the announcement of a price drop, but British Gas ensured its cuts were the first to reach consumers.
'I'm absolutely confident and convinced that British Gas makes a really important contribution to Britain,' says Orr.
To back this up, he reels off a list of reasons why the UK's biggest energy supplier should be considered a force for good. 'British Gas employs 30,000 people, pays hundreds of millions of pounds in tax, makes contributions to people's pensions and invests billions of pounds in new sources of energy, which are required for a country that is running out of North Sea gas,' adds Orr.
Nonetheless, alongside banking, the energy sector is undoubtedly one of the most politically charged areas of British business.
Volker Beckers, chief executive of RWE NPower, complained in October that the energy sector was being kicked around like a 'political football'. This is an argument that resonates with Orr.
'The sector is under a lot of scrutiny at the moment and I don't think it is always the case that the energy companies get a fair representation from politicians,' he says.
Communicating that message is one of British Gas' most pressing tasks and resulted in the launch of its 'Honest conversation' campaign in November. The aim was to answer common questions and respond to accusations of 'predatory' pricing.
Transparency over where the customer's money is going is now being reflected in its bills. Orr produces an example, highlighting in detail how it is broken down by percentage into wholesale costs, transport delivery costs, government obligations and taxes, operating costs and profits.
The profit margin, which is an average from the past five years, represents 5% of the total bill. As Orr points out, this 'is lower than a lot of other sectors that don't get nearly as much criticism'.
The margin may be relatively low, but British Gas' total profits rose 20% in 2010 to £1.2bn (including residential supply, home boiler services and energy and service supply to businesses).
Although consensus analyst forecasts predict a fall back to £1bn for 2011, any media reports highlighting a decline will no doubt be drowned out by headlines screaming that £1bn figure.
Mass redundancies may prove the adage that actions speak louder than words, as protestations that British Gas needs to make such profits to invest in the infrastructure go unheeded. The announcement, in November, that it was to cut 850 jobs from its services division, including 20% of roles from the 231-strong marketing and sales unit, is a sign that it does not want to be seen as a flabby company. 'It was tough,' admits Orr. 'I think we managed to do that well. But it's a new year and time to get on with it.'
Business growth will come from a blend of mature parts of the energy and services business and 'new things that almost don't exist yet', according to Orr. 'The brand strategy is about counting on us to look after your world, so I think areas that we can credibly provide a service and offering in, and relate to the home, those are the opportunities that we are going to be looking at.'
The latent trust that consumers have in British Gas' 10,000 engineers will be key to the development of new business areas.
'There are customers who will leave a key under the mat when a British Gas engineer is coming,' says Orr. 'Those guys are the heroes of British Gas. They have incredibly high levels of trust and a deep expertise.'
He claims British Gas is the most integrated brand in the sector due to its growing new markets business, noting the way it is 'head-on installing smart meters, solar, microgeneration and electric vehicle-charging'.
This year holds great significance for the brand as it seeks to capitalise on its British Swimming partnership during the Olympic year; internally, the brand will also celebrate the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the company from which it is descended.
Orr says the British Swimming partnership is a commitment to the sport at a 'grass-roots' level and 'not just a badging exercise'. British Gas will continue to back the Big Dip event, which takes a swimming pool to a public space. Last year, it had a successful six-week stint on Clapham Common.
Free lessons with Olympic medallists Rebecca Adlington and Keri-Anne Payne will also form a key part of its activity, alongside the Pools 4 Schools scheme, which uses mobile pools to teach children to swim.
However, as British Gas is not an Olympic sponsor, it must tread carefully to avoid the Draconian legislation put in place to protect the brand investment of sponsors.
Ambush marketing is clearly not on the cards, says Orr, adding that he will abide by the 'moratorium' around the Olympics. This means the swimmers British Gas has backed will effectively become the property of the Olympics, as opposed to British Swimming, for a period before and during the Games.
However, the Games will not prevent British Gas and EDF Energy, a Tier One Olympic sponsor, locking horns over their sustainability efforts.
Orr believes there are few 'quick wins' when it comes to sustainability because people have a sense for 'things that aren't authentic'. An affable man, he is nonetheless quick to spy the chance to have a dig at a rival. 'I don't know the figures for (EDF Energy's) Team Green Britain, but I'd be interested to know whether it has achieved mass participation. I suspect it hasn't,' he says.
In fact, EDF claims to have achieved just that, with more than 1m members on board.
When it comes to finding that authentic win, Orr propounds the idea that the big energy companies should help consumers behave in a sustainable way without making them pay a premium. For British Gas, this means free insulation and smart meters.
The firm also closed down its unpopular field-sales operation, despite doorstep-selling being a significant sales channel. Instead, it is focusing on new channels, selling to its customers on their own terms, at shopping centres, county shows and festivals.
'The way that energy has been sold to customers has been quite old-fashioned, but we are going to shift that quite fast,' he says.
Against the backdrop of turmoil in the energy sector, Orr will work closely with Chris Jansen, managing director of services and commercial, who is the board member with overall responsibility for marketing, to drive change. Orr now reports directly to Jansen, following the departure of commercial director Rick Vlemmiks in December.
With a team of 150, Orr is certainly in a position to make those changes happen in an organisation that places marketing and sales as central to its ambitions. Indeed, he enthuses about his team's work on a new visual identity - the first for British Gas in 17 years. It is currently rolling out the symbol, which resembles a leaf rather than a flame.
Whatever the future holds for Orr at British Gas, it promises to be quite a ride. The issues he deals with present stiff challenges for a marketer, and are a far cry from his work with Boots and Sky, among others, during his 15 years in advertising. 'It's fast-paced and a good mix of long-term (and) strategic thinking, plus the market is very competitive and fluid,' says Orr.
For now, he claims to be 'very happy with my lot'. Whether this is the case next week, as British Gas awaits the reaction to the announcement of its annual profits, will be a question for another day.
THREE CHALLENGES FACING ORR
- Regaining trust in the brand in the face of plunging consumer confidence and squeezed family budgets
- Balancing the need to help customers use less energy with generating enough income to invest in costly energy infrastructure
- Maintaining momentum in its new markets business
- Account exec, rising to account director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (1993-1997)
- Board account director, WCRS (1997-2000)
- Marketing director, Leagas Delaney (2001-2003)
- Strategy director, Mother (2003-2005)
- Managing director, rising to chief executive, WCRS (2005-2008)
- Director of communications and brand marketing, rising to marketing director, British Gas (2008-present)
Lives: Chiswick, West London, with his wife and two young sons.
Grew up: In West London. He now lives about 300 yards from where he was born, Queen Charlotte's Hospital.
Hobbies: Played tennis for Great Britain Under-14s team. Gave up pursuing a career in the sport after realising he would not be the next Boris Becker. He now plays golf whenever possible, and five-a-side football with friends – but less often now he's 'old and crocked'.
THE CAMPAIGNS: HOME-FRONT ACTIVITY
British Gas broke a campaign on the day it announced it was cutting electricity prices by 5% with immediate effect (12 January). The creative claimed the supplier now offered the cheapest average electricity in all regions.
Activity ran on TV, press and radio.
Northern & Shell/Channel 5 tie-up
British Gas joined forces with publisher Northern & Shell to give away household insulation to all Daily Star and Daily Express readers as part of its drive to hit government targets on the reduction of carbon emissions.
The campaign broke on all Channel 5 channels (also owned by Northern & Shell proprietor Richard Desmond) on 1 February, highlighting the insulation offer available in the next day's papers.
Profit 2010: £1.2bn (Up 20%)
Profit 2011*: £1.0bn (down 17%)
Source: British Gas *Consensus analyst forecast.
'Profit' is total group profit for British Gas Residential, British Gas Services and British Gas Business.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk
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