Changing the Definition of “Utility”: If GM Can Do It, What Is Stopping You?

Posted by Ann Hoogenboom on April 13, 2018 at 9:30 AM

Functional but not so attractive.

This is the definition of the word “utility” when used as an adjective.

We need to stop referring to our industry as “utility.” Your brand bucket is 99% filled by the customer’s meaning of “utility,” and you are never going to make customers feel good about “utility.”  

When we talk to people, we find that the part about a utility being functional is up for debate—as is overall satisfaction with prices, reliability, customer service and so on. 

On a scale of one through six, with six being the highest, here is what we found. 


But dullness isn’t destiny for utilities. We believe there’s a brighter future out there, and leadership needs to have the vision to drive toward it.

In our latest round of customer research, we asked people how they envisioned the “utility of the future,” and the most common response was a focus on renewables—with some specific qualifications involving choice and access.


Customers say…

They want independence: Over two-thirds of the people we asked reported that their idea of the utility of the future would be personal solar and wind power.

But they’re looking for more: When asked about satisfaction with options for renewable energy and/or storage, customers fell strongly at either end of the spectrum. That is, most people either feel very satisfied or not satisfied at all. That tells us that some energy service providers get it, but others have a long way to go.

And they want it for everyone: Customers are consistently focused on saving money but with a concentration on equity; they want programs that provide access for all. In their ideal future utility, respondents often combined cost decreases with an increase in renewables and access for everyone.

They need to know more: Over one-third of people don’t even know what sources make up their electricity. Meanwhile, over 82% want their utilities to prioritize renewable energy sources.

In other words, they are asking for something specific but have no idea what is actually happening.

They want to hear from you: Over half of the people we talked to want to hear directly from their energy providers. And they are open to learning more and making changes—in fact, 85% expressed interest in time-of-use energy management.


What the energy industry can do

Now is the time for utilities to reposition themselves to customers as “energy services companies” and begin to shift customer perception. Yes, there is a great deal of regulation holding utilities back from competing in today’s fast-changing energy world. But the act of repositioning a brand is not encumbered by regulation.


1. Find a way to combine what customers want most with their idea of the energy services company of the future.

Start giving customers insights into microgrids and community solar, through timely, relevant updates. Share with them the benefits: reliability, driving down costs, more choice, more control—these are the things customers want most. Drive demand for the energy services company of the future.

2. Engage customers who are interested in taking part in pilot programs who might not otherwise have the financial means or flexibility to join programs. These customers become case studies and ambassadors for future changes, especially in hard-to-reach markets.

3. Educate customers about the current positive work that you are doing on their behalf—specifically involving solar and other renewables. Partner with solar companies. Don’t be afraid to take a risk, even if you might make mistakes along the way. As we wrote about before, mistakes lead to stronger, better businesses.

4. Create easy, digestible communications, including in your social media channels. A third of our respondents communicate via social media with their utility, and we’re pretty sure that number will continue to grow. Millennials will be the ones most impacted by the energy services company of the future, and social media is the platform of choice for them.


Need inspiration? Look at GM’s home page; it depicts an exciting future full of big innovation at every opportunity possible. There is no reason a utility can’t do this, and now is the time. GM has a foot in yesterday’s technology and energy, and a toe in the future. Its corporate communications lead with its commitment to the future, by presenting a company deeply involved in energy efficiency and sustainability. 

So, go ahead—change the definition of utility. Begin to fill your brand vessel with the positive impact you’re making through your efforts, and meet the energy needs of today and tomorrow.


Ann is KSV’s Mission and Brand Manager. Her experience in marketing and communications is deeply rooted at the intersection of sustainability and energy with fellow certified B Corps. And whoever thought Superman had the best capes never met Ann. Read more from Ann here.