Labour leader Ed Miliband ignited a row over energy prices when he stood up at his party’s annual conference in September and vowed that a Labour government would freeze energy prices until January 2017.
Just six days later former traveller Dale Vince, the chief executive of green energy provider Ecotricity, announced that his company was going to freeze prices until 2014.
The initiative came amid reports that the Big Six energy companies were lining up price hikes of eight per cent, and it perfectly illustrates Vince’s attitude to marketing – best summed up as "communicating by doing".
"We don’t spend any money at all on advertising. We have a small marketing budget of two to three hundred thousand pounds a year and although we do have two people working on PR in-house, we don’t have a PR agency," says Vince.
Initially it sounds as if his company is far too ethical, far too good, to stoop to anything as commercial, as corporate as a communications programme. Yet Vince is quite open about the fact that in his view communication has been the single most powerful driver of his company’s impressive growth.
He started the company in 1996 with a single wind turbine on an old army truck that served as his home. By 2012, Ecotricity had net assets of £56m with 75,000 customers generating turnover of £54m and profits of £500,000.
The key, says Vince, has been comms. "Publicity seems to come to us naturally because of our stance, our attitude. We have a policy of never saying ‘no comment’. We are happy to engage the press and we always have radical views. That’s because we have a very clear mission: to bring about a green Britain."
You could say that initiatives like the price freeze are classic challenger brand tactics; making the established players look cumbersome and out of touch with swift, responsive populist messaging.
But the key to Ecotricity’s approach is that it is not just messaging. "We don’t just talk, we act," says Vince. And what a lot of activity there is over at Ecotricity towers. In addition to the promised price freeze, Ecotricity is currently engaged in promising frack-free gas, apparently generated from domestic waste in anaerobic digesters.
In 2010 Ecotricity bought struggling Gloucester-based football club Forest Green Rovers, which Vince has transformed into the UK’s "greenest football club" – an ongoing real-time Ecotricity brand experience.
Then there is Vince’s pet electric car project called Nemesis. In 2010 the company invested £750,000 in building an electric super-car capable of 135mph.
That led to the idea of constructing a network of electric charging points – or the "electric highway" that runs from London to Leeds. Other initiatives include the development of a small vertical wind turbine for cities, called the Urbine; the C-Razor, a device for generating power from waves, and Ecotricity bonds.
All this activity generates substantial coverage and might be classified as brand activation in a more conventional company. But yet again Vince says that would miss the point: "We do stuff with no bottom line, not to get famous but because it is the right thing to do and supports our mission."
Unlike most CEOs, Vince does not have to worry about his shareholders. There are only two Ecotricity shares in existence and he owns both of them.
For him comms and reputation may be fundamental to the business, but they are outcomes, the product of behaving well and doing interesting things. Ecotricity is a fine example of authentic communication – largely because there is substance behind the message.
Route to the top
2012 Breaks UK electric land speed record in Nemesis electric super-car
2011 Ecotricity starts supplying "green gas"
2011 Ecotricity begins installing the world’s first national network of charging points
2010 Biggest shareholder in Forest Green Rovers
2004 Awarded OBE
1996 Establishes Ecotricity
1995 Establishes Nexgen, a designer, manufacturer and supplier of wind monitoring masts
1976 Drops out of school