There is a real crisis afoot in electricity prices: increases of 20% or more are being implemented by electricity companies across the country. This crisis offers utility marketers and communicators an opportunity to take a fresh look at the strategies and tactics they use to communicate price increases.
Price Increases in 2024: Out with the Old…
When communicating about the need to increase prices, there are several tried and true approaches, some of which EEC used to help clients communicate price increases. Earlier in my career, when I was a utility communicator and our prices were going up, I used all of these approaches, and more.
One approach is straightforward, fact-based, and quantitative: “Our fuel costs have risen 125% in the last year.” Or, “We have replaced 5,000 wooden poles with cement poles to make the electric system less susceptible and more resilient to extreme weather.”
Another approach, often coupled with the first, is to play the blame game: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused fuel prices to spike around the world.” A closer-to-home variant is how natural gas prices have shot up because the U.S. is exporting some much gas to Europe in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Long story short: It’s Russia’s fault, unless it’s Europe’s fault.
A greener version of the blame game is to rue the rapid rush to renewable energy: “We’re providing electricity that is more sustainable, but sometimes that costs more than other, more traditional forms of generating electricity.” Ultimately, that blames customers and regulators for forcing a utility to go down the sustainability path faster than may be wise.
I’m not knocking any of those approaches. All of them are factually correct. But facts are less important than perceptions. That’s why the current crisis calls for investigating a different approach: The Hero’s Journey.
Price Increases in 2024: … In with the New
The Hero’s Journey can stir the hearts of your customers, prodding them into actions that work for them, and possibly for your utility. For utilities, the Hero’s Journey showcases a customer who overcomes adversity over things electric, such as price increases.
Who doesn’t love a story about overcoming obstacles and achieving an important goal?
The narrative technique known as “Hero’s Journey” was summarized long ago by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell conducted a long-term cross-cultural analysis of powerful, enduring stories that transcended era, locale, language, and culture. Here’s how Campbell summarized the Hero’s Journey plot structure:
A hero (the main character) ventures forth from the world of the familiar into unfamiliar territory, where he encounters powerful forces and wins a decisive victory. The hero pays a price for his venture. He returns home changed in some fundamental way and often tells his story to others.
If you read enough books or newspapers, or watch enough movies, you may notice that the Hero’s Journey remains a widely used approach to telling stories, both in fiction and journalism.
At a high level, movies in the Star Wars franchise share a common plot structure with The Lion King, the latest thriller from David Baldacci, and ancient works like the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. All can be read as a journey by a protagonist who overcame obstacles and achieved an important goal.
Communications tip of the month: You could use the Hero’s Journey story structure to make your price increase communications more colorful and engaging. People respond to stories because they can identify with the character who overcomes obstacles and achieves a meaningful goal.
Price Increases Create Conditions for a Heroic Journey
You don’t need a narrative as long as the Bible or The Odyssey to tell a heroic story about a customer who triumphs over rising energy or water prices.
One type of heroic struggle, sadly still too common, is the struggle so many low-income customers have in paying their electric, gas, or water bills. Economic fragility, coupled with rising energy and water prices, makes it harder than ever for those on the economic margins to make ends meet. Too often they face terrible choices between rent, food, medicine and utility bills.
One traditional approach, not wrong by any means, would be for communicators to promote their utility’s customer-assistance programs, which are offered by nearly every utility.
But a good story requires more than that. The essence of a hero’s journey story involves overcoming obstacles. The harder story to tell would be showcasing the strategic efforts made by your utility, or its employees, to support low-income customers as they fight economic insecurity and transition out of poverty.
I’m proud to say I volunteer as an employer coach for such a program in my community. Thrive – Transformation at Work is a faith-based endeavor that helps people overcome employment barriers and work their way to self-sufficiency and economic stability. The program pairs members seeking stable or improved employment with an employment coach who walks alongside the member to help them navigate the job search process and the new job.
This is not a program to get middle-income workers into a higher income bracket. Instead, it focuses on those whom the Bible called the “least of these,” those with few resources and even fewer prospects. I have had four members to date; not all stories end happily, but the organization is a force for good, and it celebrates the members who make a heroic journey to economic self-sufficiency.
Perhaps your utility has employees who volunteer their time to help eradicate poverty? Perhaps you could make a New Year’s resolution for 2024 to identify employees who work to fight poverty, and commit to highlighting those efforts in your customer or employee communications? Examples could be volunteering at a food bank, tutoring kids in schools in low-income neighborhoods, or helping out at a community homework center.
This could lead to future stories, such as the customer who joins your green energy program after attaining economic self-sufficiency.
Another Hero’s Journey that Starts with Price Increases
Another hero’s journey could be the customer (residential, commercial, or industrial) who has been driven to investigate rooftop solar power due to the high and rising cost of electricity.
Here’s one way that story could unfold. Jim is a young professional, just starting off in his career. He’s interested protecting the environment, but since he’s still paying off his college loans and he has young children, he thinks he can’t afford to install solar panels on the rooftop of his home. So he coasts along, not really pleased but not sufficiently displeased that he does something about it.
Then, he is jolted into action when he receives his electric bill showing a double whammy of rising usage and increasing per-unit prices. He plunges into his zone of uncertainty, engaging with various rooftop solar companies who vie for his business. New possibilities emerge! He uncovers options such as joining a community solar program or adding the solar system to his mortgage. His interest in solar reawakened, he tastes success and decides to go solar.
After a few google searches for local solar developers, or a check of his utility’s website, Jim finds an offering that fits his budget, enrolls in it, and feels better about doing something to help the environment.
He pays a price, mainly the time and effort to research rooftop solar options, talk to his mortgage company, and learn more about financing options. But Jim’s journey changes him in any number of ways. Maybe Jim changes careers and joins a solar company. Perhaps he begins a relationship with the person who helped him navigate the new and unfamiliar world of rooftop solar. They marry and Jim explains to his daughter how rooftop solar power helps preserve the environment.
Triumph over adversity is the essence of Jim’s Hero Journey.
A Word of Caution
All too often utilities shoot themselves in the foot because they want to make themselves the protagonist, the center of attention. Doing that will defeat this approach to storytelling because customers, typically, aren’t terribly interested in their utilities. Most customers don’t see their utility as an underdog. Too often utilities are seen as the party impeding, perhaps inadvertently, the protagonist from realizing something meaningful to them.
Conscious use of the Hero’s Journey storytelling paradigm can lead to more effective marketing content that would engage your readers far more than a rebate table with a lot of small print containing the rules for participating in your low-income or rooftop solar program.
The Hero’s Journey narrative structure can be effective for utilities, providing they don’t misunderstand it or overuse it. Be careful not to become formulaic: If overused, the Hero’s Journey plot structure could become stale and lose its impact. But with a working knowledge of what the Hero’s Journey approach is, and a dash of creativity, you could make your customer communications, well, heroic.