News Analysis: E.ON scraps its point of difference

The energy supplier has terminated its ITV weather tie to focus on sports - just like all its rivals. Ed Kemp reports.

Powergen parent E.ON's decision last week to sever its 18-year relationship with ITV's weather came as something of a surprise.

In line with the public's growing concern with the environment, the energy market is awash with green products that consumers need help distinguishing between. As sponsorship properties go, a tie-up with the national weather forecast seemed spot-on, giving E.ON the perfect platform to support its positioning as a supplier of alternative energy, and its 'Winds of change' advertising campaign that promotes its use of wind farms.

Given that most of the industry's big players use sports sponsorships to back their brands, it is curious that E.ON has ended the one partnership that differentiated it, presumably to plough the money into its tie with the FA Cup.

Indeed, as these brands scrap for share, the seeming similarity of their promotional strategies and products could well confuse, rather than aid, the very consumers they are battling over.

EDF has a Green Tariff and a Climate Balance scheme that aims to reduce the impact of individual household's carbon emissions; Scottish & Southern Energy has teamed up with avian charity the RSPB to launch RSPB Energy; and ScottishPower offers two tariffs, Green Energy Fund and Green Energy H2O. Consumers wondering which is best for the environment as well as their pocket could be forgiven for feeling at a loss.

Nick Sandham, retail manager at Powergen, claims that his firm's TV ad for a Go Green tariff, inviting consumers to sign up to what it claims is the UK's first combined 100% green dual-fuel energy product, is very different from its rivals' efforts. 'We've been very clear in the way that we have marketed this product and distinctive in the way we presented it to customers,' he argues.

Similarly, Kevin Peake, Npower's marketing director, believes his brand manages to stand out. 'Our positioning is "Be as green as you want to be",' he says. 'If you want it, we have the products. That's different to E.ON and British Gas' green ethical positioning. We're not going to "green" our brand.' Last month the company launched a National Trust Green Energy package and it also operates an Npower Juice fund that invests in renewable energy projects.

Yet copycat advertising and similar sponsorship strategies are muddying the waters. Earlier this year, Npower, which had already hijacked British Gas' 'Tell Sid' message, brazenly copied Powergen's 'Winds of change' campaign for a leaflet. Npower claims the intention was to confuse only its rivals' customers, not consumers in general.

Although the CAP code states that 'no marketing should ... cause confusion', the Advertising Standards Authority dismissed Powergen's complaint about the work because it did not create any 'artificial advantage' for Npower.

At the time, Npower claimed that its activity came only after Powergen had copied its brand positioning and sports sponsorship strategy. Npower has used its association with Wembley Stadium and English cricket to promote its green products, including Npower Solar. Powergen's parent, meanwhile, is an official partner of The Football League, an official sponsor of Ipswich Town, which proclaimed itself the UK's first carbon-neutral football club, and principal sponsor of the FA Cup.

NPower and E.ON are by no means the only energy suppliers involved in sports. Already a major investor in rugby, EDF has signed up as a top-tier partner of London 2012. The Games have been positioned as the greenest to date, and industry analysts believe EDF would be foolish not to use the association to boost its environmental credentials over the next five years.

If it is to stand out from the legion of other energy supplier tie-ups, it will need to leverage the association better than its rivals have. Although he believes sports can give brands a way to speak to fans, Sportcel director Aidan Day does not believe any of the utilities firms have yet achieved stand-out through their sponsorships. 'Nobody's doing anything terribly clever,' he says. 'They all tend to go for the big sports for the big media coverage, and are very conservative.'

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