British Gas push to get closer to customers backfires as Twitter furore poses long-term threat

British Gas’ ill advised Twitter Q&A has kicked up a storm of negative PR for the business that risks undoing the positive gains made through its marketing in 2012.

Seb Joseph

The country’s biggest energy supplier gave marketers a masterclass in how not to handle your corporate brand online yesterday (18 October) after its ill-advised social media plan to explain its price hikes was hijacked by hundreds of outraged customers baying for its blood.

The warning signs that things would turn ugly were there from the start. There was the chirpy exclamation-mark filled tweet asking people to “Tweet your questions using #AskBG!”, which would have riled even the most level-headed customer. It set the tone for an awkward afternoon where the brand’s attempt at trying to be transparent  were hampered by a lack of foresight and some very angry tweets.

The company reportedly hastily put together a statement in the wake of the incident to try and quell the unrest:
It read: “Our announcement today is difficult news for customers… We know people are worried and they want to talk about this… If you are worried about covering the cost of your energy bill, please visit our website for information.”

It is hard to believe the company’s PR team could underestimate the impact Twitter could have on the brand. With all the best intentions in the world, opening yourself up to customers on a topic as loaded as fuel costs is a marketing faux pas.

When a campaign by Waitrose was hijacked by cheeky tweeters last year, many leapt to its defence and hailed the humorous way it replied to same posts. British Gas cannot afford to make light of the cost of living, but it’s interesting to draw the parallels between both incidents. Both brands opened themselves up to people in the hope of shifting perceptions. However, because of how close it was to the price rise announcement, British Gas made a grave situation graver.

The energy firm has made great strides over the last 18 months to become a more customer-focused entity. Brand tracking data from YouGov’s Brand Index revealed perceptions of the brand rose in 2012 as its revamped marketing strategy to focus on the benefits its services offer customers showed early signs of paying off.

The Twitter gaffe risks rendering those gains pointless as the Prime Minster urges people to leave the supplier for its cheaper rivals.

British Gas, alongside its rivals, needs to get better at communicating the reasons behind its price rises and how they impact profit. A quick look at its latest finical year show that while its profit margin has not changed, the business profit has increased  – meaning earnings are growing not because it is charging customers more, but because it has more customers.

Twitter and other digital platforms could be the perfect platform to get this message out to homeowners in a clear and concise manner, but the brand needs to develop a more comprehensive social media strategy before attempting such a tactic again.

Much has been made of the energy sector looking to ape the strategies of the John Lewis’ and Waitrose of this world, with their premium brands resonating warmly with consumers despite times of austerity. It’s understandable then, that British Gas would look to Twitter in search of a similar outcome, but there needs to be more planning if it is to fully maximise on the sense of immediacy so indicative to social networks.

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