In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how themselves and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Lisa Browne, Head of Marketing & Customer Insights, ESB.


MII: Hi Lisa, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

ESB provides an essential service, so we have a critical role in supporting Ireland’s response to the Covid-19 crisis as everyone is completely dependent on a reliable and secure electricity service. Thankfully, ESB already had a pandemic response plan in place before the Covid-19 crisis hit in the Spring, which helped enormously in ensuring we were able to maintain reliable electricity services for our customers, while keeping our staff safe.

It also meant we could turn our attention quickly to the rapidly changing needs of our customers as the crisis unfolded, and take a practical, customer centric approach in adapting our marketing activities.  We used customer and market insights to continually evolve and adapt our marketing strategies for each of our brands and business areas across ESB.  Our objective was to reassure our customers and provide relevant and timely information on our energy services.

We reviewed our marketing and brand campaigns to ensure they were still relevant.   We had already launched Electric Ireland’s new brand campaign Brighter Together at the start of 2020 to introduce the suite of changes we are making to help and encourage people with energy efficiency and sustainability.   The sentiment and premise on which it is built, (i.e. people in this together), was extremely relevant during the Covid crisis.  We recognised that power and positivity can be generated when we all come together, a fact reflected in every community and home over the last number of months.   We used the Brighter Together platform across all our communications to assure our customers of the steps we were taking to help them during the crisis such as: —

  • Reducing energy bills by €100 per annum with a price reduction of 2.5 %off electricity and 11.5% off gas from 1st April.
  • We encouraged customers to use our online services, including meter readings, account management and energy saving tips.
  • We suspended disconnections and encouraged customers who were having trouble paying their energy bills to talk to us.

One of the biggest challenges we faced during this time, related to Electric Ireland’s sponsorship of Darkness into Light with Pieta.   Each year over 200,000 people participate in the Darkness into Light walk throughout Ireland.  It raises substantial funds for Pieta to support people who are struggling with mental health.   When it became clear that Darkness into Light had to be cancelled, we had to come up with a marketing strategy to help and produce it quickly.   We worked with Pieta and created the Sunrise Appeal and with the support of a strong marketing campaign, including a special RTE Late Late Show, we raised over €4 million for Pieta.   The initiative captured the hearts and minds of consumers and they responded in their thousands by donating to a cause that was particularly relevant during the Covid crisis given the effect it has had on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing.


How have you been engaging with your team?

Moving from the office, to remote working overnight was surprisingly smooth as my team embraced the change and did their very best to respond to the changing needs of our customers and business.

We adopted a practical common-sense approach to ensure we had good two-way communications across the team.   We listened to the unique circumstances facing everyone in their personal environments and helped them work through the various challenges.  Regular meetings were put in place to ensure that everyone was feeling motivated and supported while working from home.   We included weekly business up-date meetings with everyone to monitor plans and the performance of various projects across the team.  We continually checked in with the wider team through our staff engagement surveys to assess team engagement and used these insights to improve the remote working experience.    Online challenges were created to mark Workplace Wellbeing Day across ESB with teams committing to certain activities to boost morale.  We also enabled social get-togethers such as #shareacoffee to encourage employees to reach out to each other.   The nature of our work in marketing requires ongoing collaboration with everyone across the team, so despite remote working, active engagement happened quite naturally.


What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID 19?

The pandemic reinforced the importance of putting the customer first and being agile to adapt marketing plans to ensure relevance during changed circumstances.   In the early stages as the pandemic unfolded it was very difficult to predict next steps.  Our research showed that businesses that continue to advertise during times of crisis are rewarded when normality returns, we realised the importance of fuelling brand saliency through this time by not becoming silent, but spending smarter and being where people are.

The need to plan for recovery and a changed world is another big focus.  The essence of marketing does not really change during or after a crisis, it still is and will always be about understanding and anticipating the changing needs of consumers and establishing better ways to engage with them and stay relevant in changing marketplaces.    While we are all living with ongoing uncertainty due to Covid, we collectively have to accept our new world and navigate the best way to manage our business and customer needs as this situation evolves.   We have all learned so much and we can build on this to create a brighter future.


How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

We have been looking at the concept of Smarter Working for a long time, using a hybrid model of working from home and the office.  This is designed to support the changing needs of our business, changing lifestyles of our employees and to support our purpose to help transition Ireland to a low carbon future with less travel.    The Covid experience has fast tracked these discussions and enabled us to see quickly how employees adapted and responded and the impact on business performance.

Overall this has been an extremely positive experience.  It has demonstrated mutual trust between our organisation and employees to take responsibility for their objectives and deliver on them regardless of location.  However, as the months go by, there is a realisation of the impact and loss of day-to-day interactions and camaraderie and support that exists in an office environment.   People do need to connect, and people new to our organisation need opportunities to build relationships, which is easier face to face in an office environment.   For the future we expect a hybrid model where we empower and trust people to combine remote and office working in a manner that enables them achieve their business objectives, but helps build on a culture of collaboration, trust and friendship which is conducive to delivering outstanding work and protecting mental and social health.

Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID 19? How?

Our brand purpose is to create a brighter future for the customers and communities we serve, by leading the transition to reliable, affordable, low-carbon energy.    We recognise that concerns about health and day-to-day living during the lockdown and subsequent restrictions meant concerns about the environment may have been less of a focus.   However, our consumer research and insights indicate that people are still concerned about the environment and are committed to doing the right things to create a better world.   We believe it’s possible for an accelerated energy transition to result from this time of crisis and ESB will continue to lead and facilitate this change with the electrification of heat and transport and smarter innovations to achieve energy efficiency.


What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

I spent most of the lockdown in Kerry.   I was particularly impressed by the efforts of local businesses and how they adapted in very challenging circumstances.   Local businesses such as restaurants who quickly transformed their business to high quality take away services were inspirational in terms of their ideas and quality of food and presentation, something that was needed and provided some comfort and joy in a more restricted world.

Dunnes Stores were exceptional in Tralee in terms of their customer care and their attention to detail in ensuring their stores were clean and safe.   During some of the bleaker days at the start of the pandemic, when worried customers were queuing to shop, they surpassed themselves by helping people, explaining the new systems, assuring people of their safety measures and even providing free cups of coffees.   The helpfulness, care and good cheer from their hardworking staff will stay with me forever.   At the end of the day, it really is about customer experience.