From bland to brand

Brand experience, not just customer service, is increasingly the main differentiator for modern gas

Professor Nader Tavassoli ( of London business School suggests that there is a clear process to creating a true brand experience. His latest case study features not a buzzy teleco, but a one hundred and fifty year-old utility company – Hong Kong’s Towngas. Here in Africa there will come a time when utility companies have overcome the logistical challenges of providing energy, and will need to develop new points of difference. But frankly the Towngas story will inspire any budding entrepreneurs.

This company has had its fair share of price pressures, from deregulation in 1995 to the dramatic fall in oil prices in 2015. The proverb “Tough times call for tough measures” usually signals a company starting an efficiency drive. But there is another way to add value to the bottom line, and that is by investing in a strong brand.

For Towngas’ residential business this was a journey that began from the outside-in, with consumer insights. It continues today from the inside-out, because Towngas’ people have been shown how to enhance the brand experience. The transformational step Towngas took was to try to understand its true business purpose.  It turned to its core customers: domestic households that consume the most gas. Why were they such good customers, preferring gas to oil or electricity?

The answer was to not think of them as customers but of consumers: people who love cooking. It’s not a chore but a lifestyle choice; using great cast iron woks create delicious

Chinese food over hot gas flames. The answer was obvious, but it was a consumer insight Towngas had never acknowledged or acted upon.

Once Towngas focused on what people were actually doing with their gas they could map out what steps the consumer journey involved. To cook a meal, you have to decide what to cook, how to cook it, and how to serve it. The journey is not over when the food is prepared, as there’s always mess to clean up. And many of the steps in the customer journey were opportunities for Towngas to add value.Especially once Towngas considered the 12 million yearly interactions their staff had with over 1.5 million customers. Employees regularly entered customers’ homes for safety checks, servicing and installation. So these people were trained to become the eyes and ears of the company, gaining new customer insights. This provided the platform for bringing the brand to life at “moments-that-matter” to consumers.

So the company’s award-winning mobile app now features a culinary guide that offers food lovers innovative ideas and recipes from around the world. And it includes daily recipes, step-by-step demonstration videos, and a recipe search. Towngas has even launched its own brand of spices and condiments!

They thought about what Nike had done with flagship stores, and started one-stop retail and service outlets called TownGas Avenue. Then they created a restaurant called Flame that has won cuisine awards and hosts cooking classes. You can even attain a Diploma in Culinary Arts there.

And in order to encourage Hong Kong people to cherish food, Towngas launched the  “Cherish Food” reward scheme on World Food Day last year, inviting local restaurants reward customers who cherish food. They also aligned their CSR efforts around the brand purpose; becoming an active partner in the social enterprise CookEasy – providing nutritious food packs for families in need.

Using their frontline insights, Towngas partnered with the French brand Scholtès to launch a new line of premium kitchen appliances. And even started its own line of kitchens, Mia Cusina, with slick advertising campaigns. Nowadays it has extended its business model through partnerships with property developers, who sell apartments with pre-installed kitchen appliances and units by Towngas.

So the brand has deepened its brand relationship. Towngas is now so trusted that it sells customers household insurance and offers one of Hong Kong’s leading credit cards. This might seem ridiculous for a gas supplier, but the alternative was to compete on cost. Today, its whole business model has been transformed from being highly commoditised to highly differentiated: from bland to brand.

And the final lesson Professor Tavassoli delivers is that a brand can never stand still. In a recent interview, Towngas’ CFO John Ho made the on-brand observation that he enjoys cooking with gas himself and noted: “We’ve seen a lot of century-old companies disappear: look at Kodak. But for us, one hundred and fifty years is about going forward.”


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