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When the content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) teams at British energy supplier Ovo-owned SSE Energy Services were brainstorming ideas for their 2022 blog content calendar, little did they realize the reputational damage that would result.
A recent post by the energy giant of heat-saving tips included cuddling a pet and eating porridge to stay warm amid skyrocketing energy bills across the country. The “advice” did not go down well with the public in what I’m calling Empathygate, and the fallout facing the Ovo overlords could well lead to being called to appear at a regulatory inquiry into how they could so patronizingly have spoken to their customers.
In the 24-hour media-obsessed society we’re living in, this story will blow over as soon as either the next Covid strain appears or the U.K.’s Conservative government scandal drops. For now, though, Ovo’s tone-deaf approach to the delicate situation that many of its customers now find themselves in (i.e. having to make a choice between heating or eating) is more than just a painful headache for the communications team—it is actually corporate ignorance at its finest.
Negative press still drives awareness
The sad truth is that the SEO team will be happy with the rage they’ve caused in terms of the company website getting some juicy backlinks—the holy grail of content marketing—from some of the world’s biggest media outlets.
As we know from historic marketing fails such as Protein World’s “Beach Body Ready” campaign, search engines struggle to distinguish between positive and negative press, so swaths of coverage—be it good or bad—can actually help a company and its website rank higher for its dream keywords, in this case “cheapest electricity provider.” In the case of Protein World, its marketing director claimed the campaign added £1 million to the bottom line.
In contrast to the world of online rankings, on a corporate and brand image level, Ovo will have an SSE-sized stain on its reputation for years to come. While some consumers may crack a smile at the suggestions made in the offending blog post, the reality is that this crisis shows the company has a cultural disconnect with the consumers that most need its help, and this is where British regulator Ofgem should—and will—get involved.
Ovo should be applauded for powering up the crisis communications plan with such speed and efficiency; apologizing as soon as it could via social media and making itself available for media inquiries. If the Crisis Comms 101 playbook is followed to the letter, the next step will be assessing the immediate fallout and, if necessary, announcing an independent inquiry and, ultimately, one member of the C-suite heading off to see the Spanish Archer.
An internal culture crisis
The broader company culture issues that led to this post being approved are more complicated and far harder to address. How this piece of content got through likely several sign-off stages without being flagged at any level as being likely to cause offense is where the accusations of corporate ignorance come from.
A customer making the tough decision to either keep their family warm or buy food to keep that same family fed will not forget the energy provider that seemingly mocked them. Indeed, if that customer is not trapped into staying with SSE via a lengthy contract or even more worryingly, an existing energy debt, then they undoubtedly will talk with their feet and find a new provider.
I am not being ignorant to the fact that this story was potentially artificially amplified by the opportunity it gave the media for a welcome and much-needed break from reporting on Covid and secret government parties. Neither do I think this is a brand-breaking issue in terms of the long-term impact on either Ovo or SSE. But it is a story that comes at a bad time for the energy industry as a whole.
The likes of Ovo, alongside many other energy companies, have lobbied hard for increasing the price cap on what they can charge for power. This issue has played out very publicly due to electricity and gas providers going bust and stark warnings in the media from power company CEOs that they may need financial support from the government to survive.
Cat hugging and star jumps do not contrast well with months of serious lobbying, and this is something that government departments have been quick to piggyback on. It is a story that gives our politicians the chance to appear like they are fighting the good fight on behalf of their electorate instead of being in the news for all the wrong reasons, and is yet another reason why this story will rumble on.
Maybe hugging their pets will make the Ovo C-suite feel better about the difficult future that faces them.