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A trip through electric avenue: Mercury's Julia Jack on driving the brand into the future

It's fair to say the last two years have been a buzz for Mercury as it's rolled out a new brand and mission to educate New Zealanders about the wonders of renewable energy. In doing so, Mercury has associated itself with e-bikes and most recently electric vehicles. Following the launch of its latest 'Energy Made Wonderful' campaign, we talk to chief marketing officer Julia Jack about giving energy a tangible identity, the association with electric transport and how the work is paying off for the company.

By Erin McKenzie | March 20, 2018 | news

Pay a visit to the Mercury offices in Auckland’s Greenlane and you don’t need a sign to tell you that you’re in the right place. There’s an electric vehicle (EV) parked outside charging up.

It’s one making up a fleet of EVs owned by Mercury and it’s an example of how the company is living the brand messages it puts out to market.

Earlier this month, it rolled out the third instalment of its ‘Energy Made Wonderful’ campaign, via FCB, and star of the show was Evie, an EV playing host to the late-night adventures of retirees Ron and Malcolm.

Electric vehicles follow a campaign featuring e-bikes, which became associated with Mercury's brand in 2016 when Mighty River Power and Mercury Energy conflated into a single brand and the ‘Energy made Wonderful’ journey began.

It was an exciting shift for the brand, but one that added to the challenge for chief marketing officer Julia Jack who joined in the midst of the rebrand.

“That was my special present when I signed the contract: ‘Oh by the way, we’ve been working on this rebranding strategy.’”

Casting her mind back to 2016, Jack explains there used to be two main brands, Mighty River Power and Mercury Energy. The former represented the generation side of the business and had a relationship with key stakeholders, Waikato community groups and owners/shareholder, while the latter represented the retail side of the business and had a relationship with customers.

“It felt like those groups were each getting half of the story but there was a full story that none of them were getting,” says Jack. “And actually, they are not distinct people. Lots of people are a customer, a shareholder and part of the stakeholder group.”

That full story, she explains is the advantage New Zealand has with its renewable energy and it’s on a mission to around "energy freedom".

This includes freedom for individuals to not pay so much for fossil fuels, freedom for the environment from the impact fossil fuels have on it, and freedom for New Zealand from having to be dependent from foreign oils.

“We have this mission and we wanted to bring that to life for people and connect people with it by showing them the wonderful things they can do with electricity, which is where the purpose of inspiring New Zealanders to enjoy energy in more wonderful ways come from.”

Nowhere is this better proven than in an anecdote FCB chief strategist David Thomason shared about working with Mercury on its rebrand.

He told StopPress the line that was initially put together was ‘Inspiring New Zealanders to use energy in more wonderful ways’ and it was Mercury chief executive Fraser Whineray who suggested changing the word ‘use’ to ‘enjoy’.

With that, the final line became: 'Energy Made Wonderful'.

And when working on the new logo, it was Mercury’s customers who voted in favour of the bee. Jack says there were two choices and as a business, it was going with a more rational and safe choice until customers said: “No, go for the bee.”

The bee, while the least rational of the two options, is a fitting symbol of the brand because it’s analogous to the brand’s purpose to provide Kiwis with access to renewable energy.

Making the intangible tangible

Bringing to life the advantage of renewable energy may at first seem a straight-forward mission for an energy company. But now consider the fact that energy is intangible.

When asked about the challenge that lies in creating a campaign for it, Jack says there are two approaches often seen taken by telco and energy companies—and Mercury is different again.

One is to go esoteric and create a metaphor around it, such as talking about connectivity in relation to the human nervous system because it is also something that connects. The other is to be rational and have a conversation about managing the cost of a product you need to have.

For Mercury, it wanted to make energy really tangible, and the best example of energy made wonderful it could think of was the electrification of transport. And so, e-bikes and EVs have become the stars of the show.

“It’s not an energy made wonderful esoteric story but it’s not an ‘energy is a necessary evil you have to have, here’s how to manage your cost’,” says Jack. “It’s a brilliant example of a great thing you can do with it.”

Jack's point about Mercury taking a different approach to competitors by making energy tangible can be seen in the latest campaigns of Genesis and Trustpower.

Genesis’ latest campaign, via Shine, delves into the future of energy by looking at how customers will have greater control on energy and could potentially make money off it.

And earlier this year, Trustpower moved away from its Captain Energy and Broadband Girl, which have communicated the role of the company’s bundled energy and broadband services, to establish a distinct personality for the brand.

That personality come in the form of a three-minute TVC featuring the song ‘We’ve got the Time’. While the musicians jam and devise the piece, they are also seen exploring their surroundings such as walking in the bush and on the beach.

"….it was time to move on to something new,” said Carolyn Schofield. “We found that through our key products, and through our superior service, Trustpower gives people back time to do the things they want to be doing.  We help customers to feel in control and be confident about the way they manage their daily lives. When day-to-day life admin is all sorted it creates a bit of extra space in people’s lives to do more of what they want to do.”

A champion of electrictransport

Returning to the topic of electrifying public transport, specifically EVs, one of the important characteristics that make them work for the campaign is the fact that they exist now.

They aren’t a foreign item of the future, they are here now and it’s a point Thomason made when talking StopPress through the latest campaign.

“We never wanted to be about shiny hoverboards and talking about what we will one day be able to,” said Thomason. “We wanted to be able to talk about things that are real now.”

Similarly, Jack says there’s no need to leave behind the things we love, and cars and the freedom they provide are one of those things.

But it’s a realisation that didn’t come immediately to Mercury.

While EVs only appeared alongside Mercury in a campaign this month, the company has been talking about them for a while in a B2B sense with a rational tone that outlines the benefits and encourages their use because it’s the right thing to do.

Jack says it’s had a real push to encourage other corporates to convert their fleets to EVs and even talked to the government about increasing EV uptake but had never gone out to mass New Zealand.

“We did spend quite a bit of time talking about EVs in a rational way and it took us a while to get to this point of ‘oh that’s the bit that’s missing’.”

But it wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds and Mercury knew it had to change the perception of the vehicles in order to bring in the fun, freedom feeling associated with existing cars.

To do that, Mercury and FCB found a 57 Ford Fairlane and set about transforming it from a classic car to an electric vehicle while maintaining its charm.

Dubbed “Evie”, it’s now become the star of the TVC, alongside the delightful Ron and Malcolm, as well as car shows and events around the country where it makes appearances to promote the value of EVs and demonstrate how the power of energy made wonderful.

It’s not every day a marketer adds the purchase of a 57 Ford Fairlane to the budget and Jack rationalises the decision by explaining Mercury is investing in something bigger than a TV campaign.

“I describe it to people as how people pay for celebrity talent to front their brand. Evie fronts our brand, she is going to be an ongoing spokes vehicle.”

And with so many events now booked, Jack does joke Evie needs a personal assistant like real celebrity talent would.

“She looks great on the screen, she looks great in digital content, but when people meet her face to face and open her hood and see the 400kgs of batteries, that’s a completely different experience again.”

In saying this, Jack demonstrates the power of TV and the experience when they’re combined. While she sees TV as an important platform to achieve mass reach in New Zealand, for Mercury’s mission, it’s important Evie gets out and about for people to see.

Also important is digital, and even though the Ron and Malcolm story was filmed for the TVC, the team had digital assets in mind. For example, there’s a series of six-second pre-roll ads that mean the audience will get the full story before the ‘Skip Ad’ button appears.

And further down the track, the user-generated content created from people's interactions with Evie will also live online.

“At the moment TV looks quite prominent for us, but over time it will be much more about Evie being out there in public and the stories we get about her. There will be some user-generated content as a result of that, so you will probably see the balance shifting over time.”

In saying this, she adds marketers need to stop thinking about making a TVC or a digital banner, and just think about making content that will be able to be used over multiple channels—and this is what Evie does.

Helping to navigate this is FCB, which after nearly four years as its agency partner across media, creative, digital and direct, feels like an integral part of the brand, says Jack.

“It’s been a real partnership, there’s much less 'here’s the brief you go deliver it',” she says. “It feels like everything is done in quite a strong collaboration right from the very beginning.”

Lessons learned

FCB has also helped the company fine-tune its mission so as to not appear to be selling e-bikes.

It was a learning Thomason pointed out when talking to StopPress about the EV campaign, saying it heard criticisms that Mercury doesn’t sell the bikes despite pushing their use.

He said it knew it was creating a symbol and something tangible, but at times they got distracted and got quite deep.

Evidence of this is Mercury’s brand research that shows it is the brand with the biggest association with e-bikes, beyond any bike shop or manufacturer.   

Jack follows this up by saying the hope is people will see the e-bikes in its campaigns and consider them a fun thing to do while also getting a positive feeling about the company.

And so far so good, as the 12 months following the roll out of its e-bike campaign saw sales more than double, while more than two million Kiwis said they loved the idea of e-bikes according to a survey by Colmar Brunton.

This has no doubt been contributed to by  an offer for Mercury customers to save up to $500 off an e-bike purchase.

A long-term focus thing

And not only was the e-bike campaign a success in getting more of the bikes on the streets, it’s also proven successful for Mercury’s customer acquisition and retention.

When Mercury and FCB rolled out phase two of the e-bike campaign in August last year, it was reporting solid customer growth with net gains over 18,000 ICPs (customer connections) in the 12 months through to June 2017. The previous 12-month period saw Mercury Energy lose 8,000 customers.

Mercury also saw its highest customer retention rate, lowering customer churn to 13.5 percent (well below the industry average of 20.1 percent).

To put the value of this into perspective, each percentage point under the industry average accounts 
for $1.2 million in avoided replacement costs (totalling $7.6 million).

Explaining the results, Jack says they are a reflection of Mercury’s focus on long-term customers, rather than short-term customers. You won’t see it promoting upfront discounts to draw customers in,  instead offering deals like Airpoints—the longer a customer is with Mercury, the more points they’ll earn—and Free Power Days—the longer a customer is with the company, the more they’ll get.

She says it’s the loyal, existing customers who end up paying for customers who join for three months and before moving onto another provider in search of the next discount.

“All of that adds more cost in for the loyal and existing customers, so we really want to break out of that cycle and make it much more about that long-term value,” she says.

“We’re rewarding loyalty and not rewarding disloyalty.”

Asked if there have been any more results to share since the release of the second e-bike campaign last year, Jack says it's maintaining the differential.

Those results for the company saw the Mercury and FCB teams take to the stage last year to win the Grand Effie at the Effies and the Supreme Award at the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards.

It’s an achievement to be proud of but for Jack, what she is most proud of is how Mercury’s business has come around the brand.

"We have completely changed internally as well,” she says. “Everybody is now in support of the purpose and understands what we are all about and gets behind it—everything from our values to that brand execution and that feels really good. It feels like we have momentum.”

It’s also a sign that its purpose is authentic, which Jack says is a key ingredient for a brand to have in order for people buy into it.

“Everyone talks about how businesses need to have a purpose beyond making money and yes they do, but it needs to be a real purpose not: ‘Oh god we need a purpose beyond making money, let’s make a purpose.’”

She adds that having a brand purpose also helps in the long-term to establish where the brand will go, because for Mercury, if something doesn’t fit the purpose, it won’t do it.

But it shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge as Mercury’s ‘Energy Made Wonderful’ line has plenty of examples to come. And sticking to the electric transport theme, if asked if there might be one day be a big yellow Mercury e-bus driving around the streets Jack says:

I hope so - with a big bee on the side.”

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