As part of the WARC Marketer’s Toolkit, Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, Chief Marketing Officer at British energy firm Octopus Energy, spoke to WARC’s Anna Hamill about the cost of living crisis, customer experience and sustainability messaging.

WARC subscribers can access the full Marketer’s Toolkit 2023 here. Non-subscribers can access a sample version here.

Rebecca Dibb-Simkin

Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, Chief Marketing Officer, Octopus Energy

Octopus Energy is a brand that's on the frontline of the cost-of-living crisis. Right now, what's your philosophy on what your brand needs to deliver?

Our job is to look after customers consistently and deeply at every stage of the lifecycle, but particularly right now because the energy crisis is especially prevalent. Being the CMO of an energy company, that really hits home.

What we’ve noticed is that most customers are worried about what's going to happen to their energy bill. There is so much messaging out there, and people are very confused, but there are ways that we can support and guide people through this. What’s important to us as a brand is to be ever present and ever stable with an exceptional customer experience. It's important that people know when they phone or email us that they get an answer quickly and well as being out there in the media, so people don't worry that Octopus is a company that might go out of business.

They are reassured that we are here and we are looking after them. That's where all of my efforts from a marketing perspective are going in the current moment.

How are you thinking about what you can do in the moment without losing sight of your long term goals as a brand? Is that even possible amid all the upheaval?

Absolutely. We have two elements of our business. One is the energy business: this has always been getting customers and keeping customers happy, as any good marketer will do. That's your job: get customers and keep customers happy. We’re not acquiring customers right now, but looking after our customers and keeping them supported and happy is as important as anything else.

We also have our services business. We make and install heat pumps, we install electric car chargers, we have a number of innovative tariffs for electric car drivers. There's still elements of our business that are growing.

There's a lot of forces outside of the brand’s control which are impacting pricing and customer acquisition. How has that shaped how you approach managing brand perception?

We are continuing to do what we were set up to do, which is to show that there is a fairer and better way to do energy. We have built a business on those principles of looking after customers. We're a tech-led business and incredibly efficient business, and our model works in both difficult times and good times: we have built a business where we can be a challenger or feisty and responsive with our messaging when times are easier, but we’ve built a business that should then be able to withstand hard times as well.

I look after PR, customer comms and social media among others. I've built a flexible, quick-responding team who will see what's going on, what customers are thinking or what's in the media, then we'll look at whether we need to review our customer comms or what’s on social. This works very strongly in any economic scenario.

So it's about setting the marketing foundations up in the good times, so that it's ready for the bad times.

Yes, totally. It's about building a different kind of marketing team: strong, responsive and multi-disciplinary. We do all our creative in-house, we don't use agencies. If I need to respond to a government announcement on something to do with the energy price cap or I need to email all my customers or if I need to do a new advertising campaign – although we have dialled back on some that spend – I can do it the next day. We have that ability and that skill set in-house to respond very quickly and in a consumer-focused way. I sit next to our creative team, so if something needs doing I turn to them and we talk about it.

You said you’ve dialed back a bit of ad spend. What type of changes have you made there as you respond to everything that's going on?

We've slashed what we spend externally. We're not spending on trying to acquire new customers right now, but actually we decided as a business that it was better to divert that spending that we do have into customer focus initiatives. We are currently giving out 10,000 electric blankets for free to customers who are elderly, immobile or particularly vulnerable.

It's something we started doing last year. Analysis done by one of our data scientists showed that electric blankets are an incredibly effective way of keeping a human warm – it costs about 4p an hour to run an electric blanket, which is much more effective than heating your home. We actually discovered that they save [an average of] 20% on energy bills, so we're doing that again this year. We've used the marketing budget directly to divert into that electric blanket spend, and the marketing team is fulfilling that process with some of the skills we’ve learned as marketers over the years.

It’s a great example of genuinely doing something to look after customers and spending money in the right way. It’s been positively received, not just by those who receive the blankets but also by others as well.

How are you thinking about measuring impact from that type of work, as compared to an advertising campaign?

I take it back to the very core metrics of getting customers and keeping customers happy. I do look at the impact of individual campaigns, like open rates or clicks, but it’s more about what the NPS (net promoter score) is looking like in the business. Every Monday morning, we have a meeting where we review all kinds of metrics in the business. I'm looking at NPS (net promoter scores) week-on-week, I'm looking at customers who are contacting us and what their happiness is.

Rather than looking just at my individual campaign, I'm directly matching that up to the overall metrics in the business and whether customers are happy or not. So I can tell that we were a little bit busy on the phones last Monday, for example, because we launched our electric blanket campaign. It was covered quite widely, and we got some great PR. That meant we got more calls on the phone and wait times went up….When we changed what we were doing to send out links to people to register their interest rather than phoning us, our customer NPS went up slightly. It's all that kind of thing, it's not just about what I'm doing, it’s about how that work blends with this business.

In that situation, earned media, word of mouth or customer recommendations have a lot more weight and are really valuable too.

Yes. We have an incredibly high proportion of direct customers in our usual acquisition mix and a huge amount of referred customers within that as well. Because of the continuous way that we put customers first, people recommend us. I can then track that through to churn and happiness and value. It’s about doing the right thing consistently and looking at how that affects the key metrics. That’s the way that we do things.

How have you adapted your approach to insights and data and using that to plan and respond to a really fast moving environment?

We built our own model and dashboards from the beginning, and we are using data and insights as part of the day-to-day process. Everyone in the business uses it. If you are a customer service team leader, you can log into our platform and understand in real time what the wait times are, which customers are phoning you and what their experiences are. I can access that as well such as for the electric blanket campaign – who we’ve dispatched to, etc. We're constantly using it all the time. Anyone in my team can pull a standard list, create a campaign or look at the metrics.

Basically, we built a model where all of our team has access to all of our data and should be using it all the time. So you wouldn’t say ‘I'm going to do a campaign to those kinds of people’ and put a brief into the data team to send you some information and insights on it because you can go into the data dashboards and get it yourself. That's the way we've always worked. It’s incredibly quick and responsive.

What is the biggest lesson that you've learned this year about marketing, amid the upheaval?

I continue to believe that marketing drives businesses. Our business continues to show that if you create a great experience for customers, then all you're doing [as a marketer] is removing the barriers to them having that experience. Marketing done right continues to grow a business even in the most difficult circumstances, even if you’re the CMO of an energy company during an energy crisis.

Octopus is a brand that has leaned heavily into green energy and renewable sources as a brand differentiator, how has that specific choice contributed to your global brand success?

Let me turn that round a little. We don't think [a focus on green energy] is a brand differentiator as much as it is the only way forward: we need to move to a world driven by renewable energy. Actually, we have proven that renewable energy is cheaper energy. It is cheaper to generate a kilowatt hour of renewables such as wind or sun than it is to create a kilowatt hour from fossil fuels like coal or oil.

From the beginning, we've tried – first and foremost – to be a fairer priced energy company, an energy company known for incredible customer service while proving that it's green as well.

How do you translate such a clear point of view on sustainability into the types of customers you're looking to bring into the business?

We don't go and talk to our customers about sustainability because that just turns people off. We're an energy company and people are interested in fair energy and exceptional customer service. An added bonus to that is that we are proving that green is a cheaper, better way.

It’s about explaining to them that, actually, they've got that green energy, and the experience that they're getting is on the back of green energy. People just switch off when you lecture them. You just have to prove that it's different and better.

There's an ecosystem of channels under the Octopus banner including a net zero research hub and branded podcasts. What's the intent behind your owned media strategy?

I will use every channel at my disposal to be able to engage with our customers. We create our own channels and use paid media as well. We don't use agencies so we’re doing all of our media planning in-house which is generally more effective. Our general intention is about what is the quickest way of creating or producing great content and getting it out to customers. That's why I obsess over what we're putting out on our social media channels as much as what we're putting out on our out-of-home ads.

When you say that creating stuff in house is more effective compared to outsourcing it to an agency, how are you defining effectiveness?

I started off at an agency, I’m a massive fan of agencies. But what I wanted to do with Octopus was bring that agency function in-house. Lots of brands have started to talk about that, but I think it's very difficult for an existing brand with an existing marketing function to change from outsourcing to an agency to in-housing because it’s such a change in culture. At Octopus, we literally built it from scratch. At the beginning of things, it was me as the marketing director sitting next to the creative director. I still sit next to him. I can turn stuff around so much quicker with all of that insight at my fingertips than I can going to an account manager [at an agency]. It's unbeatable, in my opinion.