Friday 20 February 2015

Weekly Wrap Up: A booster for energy companies’ PR

Public contempt for UK energy companies has hit an all-time high since the Great Recession. In fact, energy bosses managed to achieve the impossible: they became an even greater embodiment of greed than the bankers who actually caused the financial crisis.

So how did energy companies knock banks off the top position and assume the role of public enemy number one?

Well it certainly didn’t help that energy bosses decided to impose steep price hikes on a UK public enduring the longest ever squeeze in living standards. It helped even less that the decision to raise prices was apparently not a necessity but simply a way to increase profits. The average profit that energy companies made per household tripled from £30 in 2011 to roughly £105 by 2014. Those figures certainly make it difficult to fathom the claims by energy companies that the price increases were beyond their control.

Public outrage over the nearly 75% increase in profits has made the UK’s so-called ‘big six’ energy companies an easy target for both media and politicians. As some politicians began to call for an energy price freeze, the media gleefully produced a slew of damaging headlines about the evil energy companies.

This week is a prime example: news outlets published a number of stories highlighting the fact that energy companies are actually punishing customers for their loyalty after a report by the Competition and Markets Authority revealed that dual fuel customers were over-paying by up to £234 per year – for Londoners that amount is even higher at nearly £350.

Bad publicity isn’t just coming from the media: some politicians have jumped on the anti-energy company bandwagon, which means that depending on who wins the May 2015 General Election, there could be an energy price freeze. If this happens, the energy companies will finally really lose: they won’t be able to raise prices if they actually need to and the good publicity that lower energy bills will generate goes to the politicians that implemented the freeze.

This makes the recent drop in oil price a very interesting turn of events. It presents a massive opportunity for energy companies to turn around their battered image without hurting their bottom line, since oil and gas prices are expected to stay low until at least 2017.

Yet none of the big six have managed to do this. Yes, some energy firms announced price drops at the beginning of this year. But oil prices have been nearly halved since last June’s peak of $115, and the biggest reduction announced, by British Gas, was a measly 5%. EDF only cut prices by 1.3%. What’s more, these lower prices only come into effect at the end of this month – in other words when the worst of the winter cold is over and energy bills will reduce anyway.

This week the CEO of British Gas owner Centrica hinted that the company could cut prices again later this year, it will probably be too little too late.

Energy companies need to act fast. Passing savings onto the customer would generate plenty of good headlines and could relieve some of the political pressure. After all, if a company is not price gouging its customers with unjustifiably high bills, it is much less likely to incur the wrath of media, politicians and watchdogs.

Energy companies have certainly managed to dig themselves into a hole. But there’s a very good opportunity for any one of the big energy companies to turn this around, especially if they are the first to act. It seems almost incomprehensible that a business would not take the simple steps of following the law and introducing fair pricing and rewards for loyal customers. And since these are conditions that will very likely be enforced soon anyway, why not take the bull by the horn and benefit from all the good publicity that would follow?

Northland Capital partners appointed Mark Treharne, previously of Daniel Stewart & Co, to its corporate bank team, whilst FinnCap appointed Christian Hobart as Sales Director, who joins from Cenkos Securities.

"Price gouging" – a situation in which a seller prices goods or commodities at a level much higher than is considered reasonable or fair. In other words, a synonym for UK energy companies’ pricing methods.

This week we moved from horse to sheep, and not just in a Tesco Shepard’s pie. With the celebration of the Chinese New Year and the changing of the Zodiac, London will be awash this weekend with paper dragons, red envelopes, and Shou Sui. Our pick of the lot is the traditional Chinatown display, which is the largest in the world outside of China.

Love the history of the Tower of London but find the crowds something more akin to Dante? Well this weekend you’re in luck, as the Tower has just relaunched their twilight tours. Be guided round this 1000 year old castle by a yeoman warder, and see a side of the White Tower you’d never usually get to see.

Finally, if you like nothing more than a quiet beer on a Sunday, but Fosters isn’t quite your brew, Truman’s is your best bet. Craft Beer Rising are hosting their annual festival at the Old Truman Brewery, with 70 different producers in attendance, all hoping to remove the usual Sunday fear from your day.

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