The insurgent customer: confronting energy pricing in the UK

Thirty years ago in the UK, (aeons for marketing types who exist on quarterly horizons), the utilities were state-owned, and so advertising them was akin to writing a tone poem: no tactics, no core message, as there was no market: just solemn content about how they served as life’s platform.

Now, in the midst of a recession that’s eaten away at people’s purchasing power for 4 years, there are inklings of small tremors in the relationship between energy utilities and their consumers.

Without doing too much desk research, it seems that the energy utilities have not reduced prices in a sustained way even though prices are falling across the economies of the developed world. Money is priced at zero, and is likely to stay that way for a couple of years at least. But all the energy companies have to do is point to a bad winter, or perennial instability in the Middle East or in Russia, and prices go up again. If there’s perennial instability, then how is this not factored into pricing models? On the face of it, the energy companies seem to have been peddling a deal that means their profits never shrink, even in this defining recession.

The UK consumer group Which? has partnered with the grassroots democracy movement 38 Degrees to launch The Big Switch: making use of Chartist tactics: sign a pledge, band together, and lobby for a better deal (on the collective energy bill). Consumer power when expressed by the complaint of any one individual is a nanoproblem for companies: but if consumers band together to force a better deal, then companies will label them as Robin Hoods, damaging market capitalism. The classical Greek-rooted term for mob rule is ochlocracy. We might be about to see more customer sedition in this recession.

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