With the pressures of the rising cost of living, accompanied by ‘pro-switching’ behaviour facilitated by the availability of price comparison websites, clear communication of the value and benefit provided by our gas, electricity, water, or telecoms suppliers has never been more important.

Thames Water Advert

The communication challenges for suppliers are however myriad. How do you considerately tell someone that their bills are going up, that the cheaper prices offered elsewhere are not worth moving for, or that they should pay their utilities bills on time, amid numerous other financial pressures? Luckily, close semiotic language analysis can help utilities suppliers refine everything from their advertising campaigns, to their direct mail to existing customers, in order to better navigate these communication challenges.

Cultural meaning is often overlooked in seemingly ‘functional’ price focused discussions, but the relationships communicated here are often incredibly important. Looking below the surface we can see that the utilities space is rich in useful connotations.

For example, the names of suppliers, often pull on a sense of local or national geography (e.g. Thames Water, British Gas, or United Utilities), inviting narratives of a sense of pride in their community and environs. United Utilities “water for the north west” slogan, and ventures like Octopus Energy partnering with Energy Local are a couple of examples of ways in which a sense of community can be further reinforced within the utilities space. These narratives are ripe for exploring to better connect suppliers to their customers.

Looking at price focused messaging, semiotic language analysis can reveal the importance of small elements of language in communicating the underlying power dynamics. These relationships guide how a sensitive message will be perceived during a time of financial hardship. Is your supplier a threat or friend? For example, when dealing with outstanding debts, language analysis can guide utilities providers away from language that suggests an accusatory tone of voice e.g. “if you are struggling to pay your bills”, to instead use language that acknowledges, and places the ‘fault’ with the broader financial circumstances beyond the consumers control e.g. “if you are facing challenges paying your bills”.

This less accusatory tone of voice can be further reinforced with more peer to peer and supportive language. This starts with the greeting used in direct mail and e-mails which should move away from the formal “Dear sir/madam” formula, towards something more relaxed and sociable, e.g. “Hello” or “Hi” combined with use of first names. This more familiar tone is increasingly useful, especially when employed for calls to action, e.g. “we may be able to set up a payment plan with you”. The inclusive “we”, suggests a sense of collaboration and teamwork to find shared solutions, as opposed to an authoritarian ‘top down’ power demanding money.

Given the increased awareness of the growing need for green energy sources, collaborative language can also be used in comms to communicate a sense of a shared social movement working to address this need. EDF energy’s “Generation Electric” campaign for example, which also features the slogan “everyone’s welcome” embodies this idea, framing energy supply as a shared social purpose. 

One tool that utilities providers are frequently keen to promote to customers is the use of Direct Debit for paying their bills. This has clear benefits for providers in ensuring consumers pay on time, but can be a harder sell to customers. To make this proposition attractive, language needs to avoid terms with connotations of hardship and financial obligation, e.g. “arrears”, “budget”, “debt”, “manage”, or “instalments”. Instead, the use of empowering language, identifying clear benefits and a sense of liberation, e.g. “stress free payment”, “allowing you to spread the cost”, or “have control”, communicates a clear positive emotional benefit.

British Gas


Finally, in a pro-switching environment where consumers proactively seek change, it is important to communicate a brand that can provide a sense of dynamism and growth within the scope of the customer’s current contract, e.g. improvements to the network, greater reliability, or new sustainability initiatives. Language referencing “new” or “improved” elements of the service, help to reinforce the notion that supplier and customer are on a journey together opening up new beneficial opportunities, as opposed to a static and transactional relationship.

Overall semiotic language analysis offers useful insights for utilities suppliers facing a variety of communication challenges. By bearing in mind the following key points, your brand can sharpen your communications to better support your customers cultural needs.

3 key take outs for utilities suppliers:

  • Language choices can establish the power dynamic between supplier and customer. Use of considerate, non-accusatory, and peer-to-peer language, particularly when delivering challenging messages about overdue bills or price increases, can help to make the customer feel less isolated and to blame.
  • Introduce options like Direct Debit, through language of empowerment, not language of obligation and hardship, to make the benefits of these options clearer and more appealing.
  • Try to consistently communicate a narrative of improvement and growth, ensuring that existing customers who are being sold narratives of change elsewhere, can clearly see the benefit of staying with you as a provider.

Mark Lemon, Associate Director

Utilising Language: How Language Analysis can help utility suppliers