Since the end of 2019, energy company, Nuon, has been serving its two million+ customers under the same name as its Swedish parent company, Vattenfall. Part of Vattenfall’s ‘one brand’ strategy, this involved a complex and challenging rebrand to launch a new purpose: to realise a fossil-free life within one generation. We spoke to Guido Stein, Director Customer Strategy & Brand about the challenges of letting go of one of the best known brand names in the Dutch energy market, the dos and donts of a major rebranding project, and his future plans for the brand.

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Can you tell us more about the reason for the rebranding?

“Nuon has been part of the Swedish company Vattenfall for quite some time now. The idea of having one and the same brand played a role from the moment Vattenfall introduced its new strategic direction and purpose: fossil-free life within one generation. It was also at that time that Vattenfall’s new logo and renewed visual identity were introduced. There comes a time when you have to decide: are we going to do this or not? This is quite a tricky question because you quickly look at it from a short-term perspective and what a rebrand will mean for our business results in the Dutch market? However, the long-term benefits out-weigh the upheaval.

“When you run one European brand together from a single brand strategy, you’re stronger in the market.”

As a leading player in energy transition for North-West Europe, Vattenfall invests a lot in various sustainability initiatives. Increasingly, we  noticed that the Nuon name made it difficult to introduce these to our customers in the Netherlands. Besides this, it became increasingly confusing, internally, and externally, to communicate from multiple brands. When you run one European brand together from a single brand strategy, you’re stronger in the market. The choice was therefore based on our long-term vision, but that does not alter the fact that it was important for us to look at the short-term as well. In order to minimise the impact of the rebrand, a smart approach was essential.”

We saw the ‘Nuon Vattenfall’ name for a while. What strategy was behind that?

“Once we had made the choice to rebrand, the ‘how’ question became important: how are we going to get it right? What strategy do we follow? I was particularly intrigued by that question and that was also the moment when I called in the support of VIM Group. In summary, we tackled the rebrand over three axies. It starts with employees, they are ultimately your most important brand ambassadors. The second step was to introduce Vattenfall to our existing customers without giving them the feeling that they would lose anything and with a confirmation of what they had just come to Nuon for. The third axis was to establish a strong brand for acquisition.

The three lines formed the core of our strategy, which is why we also opted for a ‘dual branding phase’. In all our customer communications we used the brand name ‘Nuon Vattenfall’ for a period of time and introduced small pieces of our message so that customers could slowly get used to our new name and strategy. In that period, we also broadcast a TV commercial with the message ‘together we are more’. In this way our customers have slowly got used to Vattenfall, with Nuon as their trusted sender. In the meantime, we started to measure Vattenfall’s brand awareness in the market and identified the risks of rebranding in order to determine the right moment for the full transition to the ‘Vattenfall’ brand name and matching brand story. We have moved over to the new brand now and I can conclude that this phased, data-driven approach for our brand awareness has been very

In your opinion, how important is having a strong purpose for a successful brand in the energy sector?

“The importance of a strong purpose increases dramatically if you ask me. I think that a clear purpose gives an enormous boost to the commitment of employees. During the rebranding process I was able to see with my own eyes what kind of energy this gives people. A kind of common goal comes into sight: we tell one story on behalf of the company, and the new propositions are devised from that. This makes it easier to make connections and brings out your brand story much more strongly, and that you stand for something very clear to the customer.

When I look specifically at the energy sector, I notice that recently most companies have a sustainable profile, but this is often at a product level. In the short-term it is absolutely valuable to sell sustainable products, but it is not enough to retain people for a longer period of time. You will compete on price again very soon. We see and do things differently. As a producer and supplier, we focus mainly on the entire energy transition. Not selling green electricity today, but a credible story with a roadmap towards a fossil-free future. That longer-term vision is shaped from a purpose; internally – for the employees and all product development – and of course, externally.

"It's not about who delivers, it's about who builds, who changes the landscape."

Fortunately, we in the Netherlands have now woken up to the climate agreement and people realise that sustainable energy encompasses much more than green electricity. People are really starting to think about the future now. Purpose is therefore becoming increasingly important in the energy sector. Energy suppliers must show that they are preparing themselves for what is to come. It’s not about who delivers, it’s about who builds, who changes the landscape.”

How does Vattenfall fulfil its purpose?

With Vattenfall we want to be a leader in the energy transition. This is a great ambition that we have to give value to now and in the future by taking our customers on a journey to fully sustainable energy supplies. Because if there is something important in setting a strong purpose, it is that you not only set a dream, but you also put it into practice. In the Netherlands, for example, we closed our last coal-fired power station early, we are building the largest offshore wind farm in the world without subsidies and we are one of the largest investors in charging points for electric cars. Of course, we also help our customers save money. This can be seen with our free video scan of your home or online savings advice.

"If there's something important in setting a strong purpose, it's that you not only set a big dream, but you also put it into practice.

Our purpose contains a time element and is also honest about the fact that we are not there yet. You immediately create a different relationship with your customer, one in which there is a common goal. This creates a new dynamism in the energy sector, which until now has mainly been about who offers the cheapest price. I see a shift in this in the future and there are more and more opportunities to add value”.

What are the consequences of abandoning one of the best-known brand names in the Dutch energy market?

“Of course, that has a lot of consequences, but you can oversee those consequences with a strong migration plan. Nuon naturally had very high brand awareness, 96% to be precise. One of the biggest risks was that we would lose existing customers. We set up an extensive communication plan for this, in which our service promises were central, supported by a five-day gift campaign. This gave us the opportunity to communicate very clearly to customers that the service promises remain with Vattenfall, and the five-day event gave us the opportunity to feel that Vattenfall also brings something extra.

The rebrand naturally has an effect on our sales, both at the door and online. It’s a challenge to build up the commercial value that the Nuon brand had on Google with a new brand. You start again, as it were – there’s a lot of time and effort involved. Of course, we carefully identified all risks in advance and invested heavily in order to build up Vattenfall’s brand awareness in a short period of time, including a number of large external campaigns. Fortunately, studies show that we have succeeded so far.

"The new Vattenfall brand helps us to set a new strategic course and to let go of the associations with the old Nuon brand".

I also strongly see the advantages of rebranding, especially in the long term. You get another chance to create a strong brand, to tell your brand story and build your image. Vattenfall’s story is exactly what the Netherlands was waiting for. The new Vattenfall brand helps us to set a new strategic course and to let go of the associations with the old Nuon brand”.

The rebranding of a company, with so many brand touchpoints, must be a huge project. What are the biggest challenges?

“I’m the first to admit that I was wrong on the practical side of the rebrand. During the preparations for the project, I thought that we could manage it internally with our existing resources, but I am glad that we called in the help of external parties such as VIM Group. There is so much involved in converting all on and offline brand carriers. A rebrand is an excellent opportunity to take a critical look at your current brand management and other processes; where you might be able to do things smarter, use different materials and save costs. For this, you need specialist knowledge and capacity.

"Rebranding the physical brand carriers is quite a job, but in the end, the biggest challenge was rebranding our online environment."

Rebranding the physical brand carriers is quite a job, but in the end the biggest challenge was rebranding our online environment. Beforehand, you think that you will restyle everything on your own, but in practice, the rebrand has led to a redesign of our website with a new tone of voice, new look, fonts, images and so on. UX also plays an important role in this, because in the end, of course, you want your conversions to remain at the same level”.

How do you ensure that employees promote the brand in the right way?

“As far as the brand story is concerned, we are fortunate that Nuon has been part of Vattenfall for more than ten years and has therefore been involved in the energy transition as a company for a long time. So, our purpose was already more or less known to employees. You want people to stand behind the rebrand and believe in it, so they also put more energy into making the project a success. Internal campaigning is at least as important as your external campaigns. On the first day of the announcement we really made it a ‘party’ internally; we released a Vattenfall newspaper and ensured that ‘brand ambassadors’ were present at all our locations for critical questions and dialogue. In the final phase of the rebrand we even put up a kind of De Wereld Draait Door-like TV show internally around the brand and streamed it live to all Vattenfall locations.

"When your people are behind the rebrand and believe in it, they're going to put more energy into making the project a success."

It is also important for employees to feel that your brand is clearly visible internally everywhere: what they work for, what they contribute to and what they are part of. This is why we refurbished our premises both internally and externally as quickly as possible and ensured that small details such as cards, pens and other branded items with the Vattenfall logo were made available from the outset. Finally, it is of course important that employees have the tools and resources to properly communicate the brand in content and visually. Your daily brand management needs to be in order, and we are currently optimising that even further”.

Based on your experience, which means and channels work best to bring a new brand to the market?

“I think this strongly depends on the type of brand, but for Vattenfall we have mainly addressed the rebrand communication to customers, with letters, emails and a booklet explaining the brand story. To build up brand awareness on a larger scale at a rapid pace, we put a lot of effort into television, supported by Facebook and YouTube advertising and outdoor ads. Research has shown that this approach has been very effective. The cooperation between corporate, internal, and marketing communication has been particularly valuable in this respect. With a clear common goal, we were able to achieve a lot of cross-fertilisation between the different communication areas.

At Vattenfall we receive a lot of proposals for sponsorships, but so far we haven’t opted for that, mainly because it’s less controllable. We have consciously chosen to focus on building brand awareness. In a next phase, partnerships with parties who endorse our purpose could perhaps further strengthen the brand”.

What do you think the dos and donts are in a major rebranding programme?

“The first major ‘do’ in a major rebranding programme is good preparation. Think very carefully about how you want to do it and what you need to do and make a thorough project plan. It sounds obvious, but it is essential that you have the right people in the right place internally and that they are co-responsible for the interpretation and roll out of all processes. It is important that you make a clear separation between strategy and operation. Make sure that, as a brand manager, you also properly define your own role in the project, so that you have room for strategic direction and do not get continually caught up in the daily operation and the practical details.

If you also think that the team can ‘just do it for a while’ then you are making a mistake. A rebrand has a huge impact on your resources and you have to create space for that. This also means that other projects may be postponed or may not go ahead at all. A rebrand really deserves the highest priority within your organisation.

"A rebrand really deserves the highest priority within your organisation."

A clear ‘don’t’ is thinking you do not need anyone outside the project team in the rebranding process. Internal engagement is crucial for the success of a rebranding, you have to provide positive energy around the rebrand throughout the organisation and you need all employees for that. Create a ‘circle of trust’ and involve your key stakeholders from all departments affected by the rebrand. In practice, there are often more of these than you think. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be in the right position and you’ll get things done.”

How is Vattenfall going to fulfil the promise of a ‘fossil-free existence’ in the future?

In addition to the previously mentioned investments in wind, electric driving, and the closure of our coal-fired power stations, we are also looking at solutions for heat supply. For example, we have district heating, which uses much less gas. But we also work with heat pumps for individual households and fossil-free gas. But most of all, we do it together with our customers. We want to inspire them and inform them about the steps they can take towards a fossil-free life. In doing so, we look at clients who cannot or do not want to make a substantial investment in their own home. Ultimately, we will help them save energy as a first step and look further from there. Only by adapting our way of living, travelling, our work and life step-by-step can we make a difference now and, in the future, together”.

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