Disrupting the energy sector: Interview with Emily Rubin (Amber Electric)

Climate change is the number one concern of Australian consumers. In this interview series Warren Davies speaks to marketing professionals about values, purpose and what responsibility businesses and brands have in making change for the greater good.

This week he speaks with the CMO of Amber Electric, Emily Rubin, about disrupting the energy sector, with an emphasis on customer experience and shared values. Amber is a company that gives consumers access to wholesale electricity prices, in an effort to power the move to 100 percent renewable energy. 

Warren: In 2021 we’re asking more from business – to reassert what their license to operate is. I’m interested to know if you’re seeing more of that either in your personal or work life?

Emily: I think one of the things that’s obviously been top of mind for me is my recent move to Amber. When I talk to people about some of the teams I’ve decided to join or products I’ve decided to work on I talk about degrees of separation from the real world. So it’s kind of a version of ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, I guess. That’s why I’ve landed on a B2C product. You’re really right there with the users.

At Google I was working on ads and cloud products that are doing great things to enable users, but are also the largest revenue generating parts of the business. Those are funding some of the big social investments that Google is making. But maybe you’re a couple degrees removed from that, right? That’s partially where my move has come from – being able to put your finger on what’s happening, to hear customers and being able to directly influence and drive that real world impact. 

I’m curious, do you think that this conversation around the ‘social license’ for businesses has been well received in marketing circles and agency circles?  As an industry, are we happy to be talking about this or is it a distraction from service, product, customer, brand – all the things that we’re familiar with?

From recent experience, the signals I’m getting from the industry, talking to job candidates as well as marketing colleagues, I’d say it is. It is bubbling to the top. A lot of the agencies we’ve been talking to have said things like: ‘We are values driven’; ‘We say no to clients that we don’t feel are aligned with us’; and, ‘We feel like you are strongly aligned with us’. So that’s a good thing for Amber.

I think that’s partially to do with our model and our mission. We don’t have dissonance in terms of what’s good for us and what’s good for the planet. So it’s pretty natural for us, but I can see how it’s not natural for every industry and business that has been around for awhile. So I’m seeing that in our conversations, there’s actually a large interest to work with us because of our values and then our partners wanting to make sure that they are making those [values-based] choices with their clients. It’s nice to be a part of.

Last century the economist Milton Friedman said business has only one responsibility, which is ‘to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits. So as long as it stays within the rules of the game.’ Is that true today, we do what we can within the law?

No. I don’t think it should be, personally. I’m a marketer, I need to know what’s important to the public and my customers. For example, ‘climate change’ is now the number one concern for Australians, surpassing ‘cost of living’ and those two are really above most of the others. If you look in a pragmatic sense, if you are not thinking about that, you’re not aligned to one of the core functions as a marketer: knowing what’s important to people. But, there’s more of a moral issue – that these are big societal problems that need to be addressed. We all have responsibility there. We see that customers think that businesses have responsibility too. 

I feel like the other piece is startup founders who are focusing on social impact challenges where previously not-for-profits would be leading in a space. There’s a premise with Amber: if you can align everything so that all the incentives are aligned, you can have the velocity and the rigour of a business applied to this big problem and hope to accelerate the pace of change. 

Do you think people are giving up on government and the slow pace of policy and legislative change over time? For example people like Mike at Atlassian stepping up and going: “I don’t have to wait for someone to make change. I’ll just do it.”

I think in the context of climate change, the answer is everyone needs to be doing as much as they can. It all needs to be firing on all cylinders, including governments. I find the local and community piece interesting. If I remember correctly, an area in California voted to opt out of the grid and sort of run their own local grid with more renewables. They were fed up with the retailers and the generators not shifting fast enough to renewables so they organised it themselves. [note: The town of Gonzales, California was able to create a municipal power authority to sidestep regulation preventing microgrids in the state. Other towns have followed suit.] The products that I’ve enjoyed working on the most, and the companies I’ve enjoyed being a part of, are when you’re empowering the users. So they don’t necessarily have to pass laws to get what they need!

Yeah well governments can be very short-term focused. What you seem to want to crack with Amber is the 5,000 year view: how could we set up for that? But what’s the advantage to activating people in the short term with marketing activity?

That’s an interesting question. I think with a growth process, startup process lens, you need a minimum amount of users to get the insights, to build your business. You need a minimum sample size. You need to push just to get the insights to build the rest of your organisation, your programs and your plan.

For us, because Amber is such a new model where you have the opportunity to respond and take ownership of electricity, we really want to ask: are you ready to proceed? That’s not traditional marketing. You wouldn’t ever add friction there for someone. We’re not pushing the volume through and optimising only for getting more volume. But we’ve done that because we think it’s more important to zoom out and ensure that the customer has a good experience. 

We’ve prioritised that in a sense – that it is overall better for our business in the long term, but in the short term, it is going to throttle the volumes. We want to prioritise the ‘quality’ of the users versus blindly shooting for volume growth which will cause challenges later on.

Interesting. Is that a bit different to some of the Google work, or even other work that you’ve done where it might’ve been, perhaps, OKR driven and focused on a quarter (or a shorter horizon)?

We were even potentially shorter – sometimes with month-to-month goals. And you want to achieve your forecasts because it shows all the channels are working, that your programs are working.

But I think we have encountered those decision points where we could keep pushing for the short-term number or we could lower it, or temper expectations a little bit because we need to spend more time building something that’s important for later. I think an example of that is our paid marketing. We can keep spending a lot of time thinking about that and optimising that. And not that it’s not important, but ultimately we think one of the best ways for us to build a movement around Amber Electric is through word of mouth and having the brand drive a lot of that – getting our organic channels even better. 

It’s something that we have discussed, that we have to shift our focus to building the brand. To really work on referrals, whether it’s paid word of mouth or free word of mouth, and you can’t flip those on overnight. You have to decide that you want to shift the focus, because this is better for us in the longer term.

For a long time utilities like electricity have been a low involvement category, we care little and buy on price. The legacy brands have set a low expectation for what power can be. How do you get people to see the longer view with you?

You’re right on, about the legacy of the category and how electricity is ‘out of sight out of mind’. There’s also the complexity of the energy market. Plus existing retailers, in terms of how their business models have worked for many years, resulted in people mainly switching because of price, because they had a poor customer experience, or because they’re moving house. Those are not very good reasons to change. They’re reactive and negative, they’re not values-based decisions. Eventually that deal will no longer be the best deal on the market and retailers are hoping from a ‘loyalty tax’ perspective that you’re just not paying attention. That is the business model. 

I don’t know whether this means we’re creating a new category or whether we’re trying to disrupt the existing category, but we’re actually enabling people to engage with electricity. We know that is a big concept to get across, but we find that actually a lot of our users are really fascinated by it. Maybe it’s the novelty, but they love logging in and looking at it. We are seeing that there’s some magic there around learning where your energy is coming from, how much you’re using, and how you can make better choices. We have a big cognitive leap to make, but that’s where marketing is going to need to come in. Our goal is to have Australia using 100 percent renewables. The revenue is only to support that goal.

Most seasoned marketers have been nurturing brands for a while. But some are less familiar with the other imperatives we’ve been discussing. Younger marketers coming through are more aware of these things however they have less experience stewarding brands. How can we bring these two different perspectives together?

My perspective is that a diverse team is better for a lot of reasons. The different perspectives, different experiences and different points of view, all coming together strengthens the team.  There’s literature on that too. 

There are also the moral points of supporting diverse underrepresented groups as much as you can, making sure you have diverse pipelines of candidates to help get the right balance in the teams. So I think it applies to this as well. You should have those marketers working side by side, aligned in terms of the top level goals and strategy. It should only make the team and brand stronger by bringing those two types of marketers together.

 

Warren Davies is the managing director of All or Nothing.

Emily Rubin is the CMO of Amber.