"Doing the right thing," British Gas crowed, begging to be forgiven for past sins and allowed to rebirth as your domestic goddess. Let's put all those years of monopolistic arrogance behind us, let's move on from those pesky Energywatch censures (inaccurate billing, increasing retail prices, a £200,000 fine from Ofgem for blocking customers from switching to rival suppliers). Now we're customer-focused, environmentally friendly, socially responsible and we'll come and fiddle with your dripping pipes at 5am when every other bugger in the Yellow Pages won't even answer the phone.
British Gas is on a £400 million programme of reinvention. It's five years since full deregulation of the UK energy market forced the company to transform from a high-handed supplier of an essential commodity to a meaningful brand offering a range of added-value services. It's invested in back-end infrastructure, customer handling, call-centres and 5,000 more engineers. Now it has a £50 million marketing budget to drive the message home and a wearisomely familiar ad strategy to underpin it all.
The new TV ads, by Clemmow Hornby Inge, star Ricky Tomlinson, a man always a heartbeat away from spitting "my arse", and, here's a thing, are set in a training academy where recruits are taught the ropes of customer service. It's more well-worn than the channel-zapping button on your remote control, more hackneyed than a black cab, but then this is a campaign designed to reassure and comfort, not challenge and stimulate.
The vignettes are actually done with a nicely simple humour and deliver a well-defined message: British Gas does more than gas and is trying to be more customer-focused. The hapless recruits are a bit too gullible to be entirely reassuring, and Tomlinson is not exactly a likeable figurehead for an all-too-faceless corporate giant. But they made me smile.
In a market where the vast majority of us couldn't give a sod who supplies our gas or electricity as long as there's heat and light, customers have tended to switch suppliers in search of cheaper deals. The danger with the latest TV ads is that they immediately make you think again about rival suppliers and cost. So the TV work is backed up by an outdoor campaign with a couple of cracking special-build posters that cut to the chase beautifully. One poster is slashed in half with the rather obvious but effective message "cut your bills". Another is upside down, "Because things go wrong".
British Gas' share of the residential gas market is still slipping (down to 63 per cent by the first half of this year), electricity is notching up (to 24 per cent) and it has almost 400,000 telephony customers, but battling on price is not a long-term strategy in what is essentially a low-margin business. Backed by the might and experience of Centrica, British Gas is well placed to stretch its brand into higher-margin services and attract higher-value customers. And, of course, the more add-on services you can sell to those customers, the more difficult you make it for them to switch energy supplier.
In a world of confusing energy brands, dodgy tradesmen who can't be arsed to turn up, and appliances bent on self-destruction, British Gas wants to offer peace of mind. The TV campaign, for all its predictability, is a decent start.
Dead cert for a Pencil? Probably not even in the "best training academy
File under ... S for safe and reliable.
What would the chairman's wife say? "How appropriate to have a member of
the royal family in your advertising, darling."