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What Electric Utilities Can Learn From The Auto Industry

The growth of electric vehicles (EVs) is the story of two massive, multi billion-dollar sectors coming together: the auto industry and electric utilities. While they have common traits, these two sectors operate with different strategies, approaches and cultures. Therefore, we believe they can learn a lot from each other to foster the development of transportation electrification.

In this piece, we examine what utilities can learn from the auto industry. Please refer to other articles in this 3-part series: Utilities and Auto Industry: The Romance That’s Meant to Be, Eventually and What The Auto Industry Can Learn From Utilities



Electric utilities have it easy when it comes to acquiring new customers — in most of the United States, the power sector is composed of local monopolies. Automakers, on the other hand, have to compete and convince buyers in a crowded marketplace, and get really good at understanding how their brand impacts sales. 

As utilities are increasingly promoting electric vehicles, they may benefit from taking a page from the traditional car sales playbook. In other words, learn a thing or two from automakers themselves. 


Automakers Treat Marketing Like a Marathon, Not a Sprint

As EVs are gaining popularity nationwide, many utilities have taken the opportunity to educate and engage their customers on their benefits. Campaigns including online platforms, email blasts, Ride and Drive events, and social media outreach are conducted all over the country. 

This is good news. However, while effective individually, these efforts are sometimes not tied to a long-term strategy. When lacking a broader narrative or quantified goals, they unfortunately can land on the chopping block when budgets are reviewed. 

Therefore, we often see encouraging results in the initial stages of a utility outreach program. But these efforts are sometimes short-lived, and end up amounting to a succession of sprints, which do not translate to lasting impact.

Automakers take a more calculated and long term approach. They leverage “big data” to segment customers, understand them at every step of their journey, and insert themselves along that journey. Marketing year-round, through many channels and using artificial intelligence-inspired techniques to scan chat boards, reviews, and embedded data, they influence the consumer in every possible way.

While utilities don’t share similar marketing budgets, they do have customer relationships and access to lots of customer data. When a long-term, cost-effective engagement strategy is in place, we see the utility become top of mind for its customers — and raising general EV awareness and sales in significant numbers.


Automakers Understand The Importance of Emotional Messaging

When I think of an auto ad, I imagine driving down an empty road with a scenic coast and a narrator eliciting positive emotions of confidence, fun, and excitement, coupled with a sense of smart and responsible choice. 

Automakers appeal to the emotional part of buying a car — because it works. It drives sales. On the other hand, many utilities take a more technically centered approach when engaging customers on EVs. They are quick to emphasize the electric details of the vehicle, give lessons on power trains options, or bring up notions such as kilowatts — which all tend to turn off customer interest.

While these questions are crucial, and there is nothing wrong with taking a functional and practical approach, it’s just not as fun or relatable.

In addition to the cost advantages, communicate the coolness factor that comes with driving an EV. On top of the features, talk about the feel of the acceleration. Think about how the customer will feel when an EV enters their life. (For more other things to consider when talking with customers, click here ). 

For example, Austin Energy with their StEVie campaign did a nice job in making customer engagement fun and not just static. Their campaigns are memorable with the audience. Many customers don’t expect utilities to be creative, therefore they can more effectively create a fun environment that stands out, even with a small budget.  


Car Salesmen Drive What They Sell

The auto industry is competitive and as such, their product line is a badge that many employees and executives will drive with pride. It adds confidence and credibility to the product: if you really love a vehicle because you drive it everyday, your customer will feel it, and will be more likely to buy. 

Individual utility workers already buy what their company sells for their own use: we all need electricity. With EVs, they now have an opportunity to also drive on the fuel they sell — and make it known to the world.

Fortunately, many utilities have started to electrify their passenger car fleet and some of their medium-duty fleet, which is a prerequisite to engage commercial customers around fleet electrification.

However, we are still seeing a relatively small portion of utility managers, executives and board members embrace EVs as a personal choice. More broadly, Public Utility Commissioners and political decision-makers also have very little personal experience with EVs.

Therefore, leadership figures in the power sector have a significant opportunity to lead by example. After all, driving a gas car amounts to vouching for your competitor’s product.



In conclusion, a wealth of consumer engagement knowledge is available to electric utilities who have the ambition to make their mark in the consumer EV space. If they treat consumer engagement as a long-term effort, leverage communication best practices, and lead by example, they will benefit greatly from the EV revolution.