”Sticking Our Head in the Sand Wasn’t An Option”: British Gas on Navigating the Energy Crisis
First published on LBB
Centrica’s Andy Freeman and The&Partnership’s Sarah Clark talk to Laura Swinton about the responsibility to step up during the biggest crisis the sector has seen, and how data and honesty have shaped British Gas’ ‘Straight Answers’ platform.
As Europe tussles with an energy crisis, British Gas and their agencies, The&Partnership and Mediacom, have pivoted their marketing plan to help households tackle the energy crisis. The data-drive campaign endeavours to be a straight-talking response to consumer confusion throughout a challenging and fast-changing environment.
The campaign features an online advice hub as well as responsive executions across video, social, outdoor, print and radio.
As marketing challenges go, it’s one of those crucible moments for marketing team and agency alike. But it was not a situation they could afford to avoid – indeed, say Sarah Clark, joint managing director at The&Partnership and Andy Freeman, marketing director at Centrica, British Gas had a responsibility to step up.
Of all the energy suppliers on the market, British Gas occupies a unique space in the collective consciousness. Formed in 1986 when the British Gas Corporation was privatised, it’s now owned by Centrica, but its history stretches back 200 years and it is the largest supplier in the UK, serving over nine million homes.
“We take our responsibility as category leaders very seriously,” say Andy and Sarah. “Sticking our head in the sand wasn’t an option in the face of the biggest crisis this category has ever seen. From the outset, we knew we had to be on the front foot and straight-talking in order to best help our customers.”
As the scale of the energy crisis became clear across 2022, the teams at British Gas and The&Partnership found themselves with multiple questions to contend with. They found themselves discussing things like: ‘How do we step up as category leader and do the right thing by our customers?’; ‘Should we try to explain the nature of the crisis or just land what we’re doing to help?’; ‘How do we communicate in the most straightforward and transparent way possible?’; and ‘How do we set ourselves up to respond to a rapidly changing situation?’.
The starting point for figuring out the answers to these questions – and really understanding the questions that the British public had – was to dive into data. Given the gravity of the situation, there was no room for guesswork.
“Data has been the absolute bedrock of this campaign – Google search volumes, social listening, regular quant surveys, customer data and a fortnightly panel discussion,” explain Sarah and Andy. “Understanding the big questions, worries and concerns on a week-to-week basis has helped us create a genuinely insight-led campaign. We have left no stone unturned.”
Indeed their diligent research yielded some surprises which helped ensure the campaign was targeted and impactful as possible. For example, in any normal year, the marketing challenge is to try to get consumers to engage with the sector at all, but now as bills soar and energy hits the headlines day after day, the situation is quite different.
“[The biggest surprise was] quite how more informed customers are about energy and the category than they were this time last year. This crisis has created a level of knowledge that we’ve never seen before – that in itself has helped us to respond to critical remaining questions,” say Sarah and Andy.
When responding to the public’s well-informed questions, it was clear they couldn’t afford to be fluffy. As an example, while some high profile commentators on social media have touted small steps as easy fixes – tinfoil behind radiators, switching to microwaves and slow cookers – the British Gas hub has taken the more measured response, “They really can help (but they won’t bring your bills all the way down),” while also signposting measures to take.
Sarah and Andy add that there was a concerted effort to ensure accuracy and honesty, which involved bringing in experts across the business. “From the outset, we worked in partnership with a cross section of disciplines from across British Gas – using our collective knowledge to create a bank of straight answers, but also holding ourselves to account on the accuracy and authenticity of the answers. From engineers, to corporate comms, to the net zero team – we have been collectively ruthless about the messaging and its accuracy. We never wanted to over-engineer solutions or pretend we had all the answers,” they say.
Once they had the content, the team needed to ensure that the copy hit the correct tone – being clear without being condescending, and being humane without being inappropriately twee. “The clue is in the title – straight answers. The energy sector has been pretty opaque in the past. And the government wasn’t giving any information at all when we conceived it. We knew we needed to level with people, as people, not corporation to consumer. No overclaims, no downplaying. Just the straight answers people were seeking, delivered with humanity and honesty,” Sarah and Andy say.
According to Andy, this effort is ‘the most joined-up response British Gas has ever seen’. The whole organisation bought into the strategy and the corporate communications, internal comms and leadership worked closely together. Indeed, beyond the marketing output, the energy supplier has also stepped forward in other ways. In mid September Centrica CEO Chris O’Shea announced plans to cap profits – and on September 27th British Gas was singled out by regulator Ofgem as the only energy supplier not to have any significant issues when it came to helping customers struggling with their bill payments.
Tone and content weren’t the only challenges the team had to contend with. As the campaign developed, the energy and economic situation was in flux, and still now it continues to change. Throughout August, the UK government was hamstrung by the Conservative Party leadership battle. On August 26th, the energy regulator Ofgem announced a benchmark of £3,549 for the average household’s annual bills – a couple of weeks later the new Prime Minister announced a new package that would keep the average bill to £2,500. Given the fluctuations, the campaign had to be created with built-in responses. Mediacom is adopting a flexible approach to media planning, and the Centrica team will be working with its agencies to follow developments closely – ensuring messaging is as relevant and up-to-date as possible.
“We’ve shifted our usual winter approach from TV spots towards more flexible and responsive channels that allow us to stay on the pulse of consumer sentiment and a rapidly changing situation,” say Sarah and Andy. “A digital, radio, press and social plan has set us up for agile copy changes, and we are using weekly sprints to agree messaging priorities based on customer listening and data.”
To understand the campaign, it’s important to understand the context in which it’s hitting the market. As Andy and Sarah say, the energy crisis has been top of mind for households, and a regular topic for mainstream TV shows. Figures like the journalist Martin Lewis, of the website ‘Money Saving Expert’, have become mainstays. Since its formation in June 2022, the campaigning group Don’t Pay UK has been gathering momentum, encouraging people to go on ‘strike’ by refusing to pay energy bills from October onwards. Energy producers have come under fire for making record profits too. And, all of that comes alongside a host of other economic difficulties facing households and businesses, including rising inflation, looming recession and the threat of suring interest rates.
All of this context was key to the teams’ approach to their response. “We are nothing without our customers, so it’s been critical to us from the start that we don’t bury our heads in the sand, and are prepared to have the right and often difficult conversations with our customers. Equally as leaders, we wanted to talk to the nation, and provide help via the British Gas Energy Trust, whether you are a customer or not. It’s been important to keep a straight-talking, action-based conversation – no platitudes, no smoke and mirrors – but an honest conversation about what is happening and how we can help.”
This campaign has led both Andy and Sarah to reflect on the role that advertising and marketing can play in keeping consumers informed and helping them navigate difficult times. They also share that the covid-19 pandemic has helped them build a really strong foundation – it strengthened the brand-agency partnership, helped them become more adaptive to rapidly changing situations, and ensured that they were more attuned to live consumer sentiment.
For both, their experience has reaffirmed “that clearly communicating what we’re doing in a crisis is vital – every single execution is focused on positive and constructive action: our actions as a category leader both to help our customers today, and rebuild the category for better tomorrow. Delivered in an honest, straight-forward and simple way.”
The whole project has also demonstrated the utility of a clearly defined purpose – with the British Gas team using the lens of its purpose to inform its response to the energy crisis.
“The energy crisis is, in many ways, the climate crisis in a nutshell. So yes, our purpose to help people live simply, sustainably and affordably has never been more important,” say Sarah and Andy. “It’s why our campaign covers both the actions we are taking to help people with their bills today, but also what we are doing into the future to reset the way the energy category works, for better.”
As marketing challenges go, an energy supplier tackling an unprecedented energy crisis is certainly up there. On a personal level, both Andy and Sarah say they’ve learned and are continuing to learn a lot – not least the importance of being present and taking responsibility – particularly when you’re a brand with the legacy and reputation of British Gas.
“In times of crisis, the responsibility you have as a trusted, established brand means you have to stand up and be counted for what you are doing to help,” say Andy and Sarah. “Going quiet is not an option.”