When branding runs into pricing

Jim Southcott, chief strategic officer at Vancouver-based Bryant, Fulton & Shee, has been working closely with client BC Gas since 1998 to better develop the brand's profile.

Jim Southcott, chief strategic officer at Vancouver-based Bryant, Fulton & Shee, has been working closely with client BC Gas since 1998 to better develop the brand’s profile.

Because the product is a commodity and the company holds a monopoly in the B.C. market, conventional wisdom was that there was little practical need to push the brand to consumers.

But with the tide of deregulation sweeping utilities markets around the world, the company changed gears in recent years. Three years ago the utility, with the help of BFS, began to develop a communication strategy that readies the company for competition.

‘There was an absolutely huge amount of what we called buried equity. Because [BC Gas wasn't] top of mind or a strong brand compared to other brands, the risk was they were just never going to capture that,’ Southcott says.

‘So our objective when we went out there with the branding campaign was twofold. One was to capture those buried equities – to remind people of what BC Gas has done. [The other] was to prime them for a lot of the new ventures they were looking at getting into, whether it be alternate fuels or other services to the home.’

The TV and print campaign ran earlier this year, but BC Gas’s experience highlights one of the biggest risks to marketing a commodity: Recent worldwide increases in natural gas prices undid a lot of the good the branding campaign had achieved in the customer’s eyes, Southcott says.

‘There was a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt,’ he says. ‘The issue [natural resource companies] deal with is that a lot of them don’t control the commodity price, they’re just passing it on. But the brand is impacted by it.’

As a result, the company has put its initiatives on hold until prices become more stable.