Written by Chris Bowman

Last week, the Competitions and Markets Authority released its report on the UK energy market. One of its recommendations was that utilities should share customer data so that rivals can contact those who’ve been on a standard tariff for three years or more and offer them a better deal. People were not amused.

On the defensive, Roger Witcombe, head of the investigation, is quoted in a Financial Times article as saying:

“What they will be bombarded with is offers to save up to £300 a year, not marketing. This is not spam, this is targeted mail which will allow people to realise savings throughout the year.”

With respect to Mr Witcombe, marketing is exactly what that is – potentially marketing at its best.

I get what he’s saying, I do. No one needs a thick wad of energy overtures sandwiched between the takeaway leaflets on the doormat. Thinking of selling your home? Switch to our new dual-fuel tariff! Free stuffed-crust on Wednesdays!

But let’s think about what marketing really is at its root. It’s a form of communications – from a company to a potential or current customer – designed to provoke a commercial decision. It’s offering a deal; some of them will only benefit the company, but the best will benefit both.

If you were buying a product for £20 down the road, and I was selling the same thing for £15, would you want me to stay quiet? Of course, there’s such a thing as too much: following you down the street bellowing my offer in your ear at three second intervals whether you were interested or not – that would be spam – but surely telling you about my offer would be beneficial to us both?

And this is the same product we’re talking about. First Utility brilliantly lampooned the idea that we might pay for a ‘premium’ energy supplier with its HD Electricity/Unicorn Power campaign. It’s the same stuff.

After all, whether you believe in a privatised energy market or not, that’s what we have. And  private markets only work with genuine competition, which is precisely what this proposal is designed to encourage.

The only party that stands to lose out from this is the incumbent provider with an uninformed customer stuck on an uncompetitively priced standard tariff. At a time where we’re justifiably worried by energy prices, and utilities are often perceived to be milking the consumer, this proposal should be welcomed.

I think what Mr Witcombe has done here is to hit upon the tension between beneficial marketing, and our distaste (especially in Britain) for the feeling of being sold to. But as with all things, there’s good and bad in brand communications. There are aggressive, manipulative campaigns selling goods and services to people they shouldn’t (payday loans anyone?) and there are efforts to communicate a message that can be mutually beneficial. This is the latter.

Though direct marketing has attracted the ire here, no doubt there will be a media role to play too. The best campaigns are integrated so expect to see utility spokespeople talking up the rights and options available to the consumer in broadcast and print in tandem with the flyer drops. The key here is to be seen as a consumer champion – but the spoils will only go to those who walk at least some of the walk too: who make lives better, and avoid hounding the customer. Done right though, this is a positive step: marketing is not spam, and comms is not a con.

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