The CHARGE Interview

Stephen Fitzpatrick, Founder and CEO, OVO

Stephen Fitzpatrick founded OVO Energy in 2009, after a career in the City, where he was Vice President first at Societe Generale, and then at JP Morgan. Within 10 years OVO Energy had signed up 1.5 million retail customers, ranked first in the Which? Customer Satisfaction Survey, and won the 2019 uSwitch Supplier of the Year award. In January this year, OVO completed the acquisition of SSE’s retail business and added another 3.5 million customers, making it the third largest energy supplier in the UK. And yet, when we spoke to Stephen, one of the first things he said was “I’ve got almost nothing to say about branding, but I have a lot to say about brand.” Fridrik Larsen investigates…

CHARGE: When I came to visit you at OVO’s London offices, I had a feeling I stepped into the OVO brand – into the OVO world, if you will. I noticed a distinct culture, an atmosphere, and that to me is branding. It is not just about having a logo, it is about having a story to tell, and conveying it through everything that you do. What do you think? 

Stephen Fitzpatrick: I have to say,  I care much more about brand than I do about branding. To me there’s a big difference. 

CHARGE: That makes you an interesting guy, as you have built a very successful energy brand in a relatively short time, what helped you succeed?

SF: Energy is a really complicated industry. It’s very technical, and there are lots of ways you can get it wrong. You need to have rigour, you need to process huge amounts of data, manage volatile pricing and understand hedging. I had a lot of experience with that from my trading and finance background. But to succeed, you have to balance this complexity with an understanding of what customers actually want and find a way to make it much simpler for them.

CHARGE: Back to branding now – many energy professionals will tell me their company does not much care about it. Yet, these are some of the most recognisable brands in the world.  I suggest we don’t get caught up in the terminology, let’s just use that word for lack of a better one. How has the perception of the OVO brand changed, compared to when you started?

SF: When we launched OVO Energy we were the challenger brand and we did a great job of championing the customer. I’m proud to say that this is still the case today. Back then, it was easy to identify who, and what we were up against. Over the last ten years we’ve transitioned from a challenger to a leader, and that means figuring out what we stand for. This is probably the biggest change for the brand, whilst still remaining a customer champion.

CHARGE: Do you think that the perception towards brands is somehow different in energy industry compared to other industries?

SF: That’s aninteresting question. Typically, in industries where you have more consumer engagement and understanding, you will probably find stronger consumer brands. Historically, energy has been an industry that felt confusing for consumers, and not that compelling for them to engage with. We’re seeing a real change in that respect now, with consumers engaging more around carbon and the environmental impact of their energy. Consumers are demanding more, and it is great to see.

CHARGE: When I take my message on branding round the world I often hear “we are a B2B company, we don’t really need a brand”. What do you think of that?

SF: I read recently a quote by John Wooden, an American basketball player and coach,  which I think relates well to this. He said: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”. Even if B2B companies feel they don’t need too much branding, they should absolutely still focus on their brand because their brand is who they are and what kind of company they are. In a world where knowledge and expertise are the only really sustainable competitive advantages you need to fight for talent every day. For OVO, we want the best, smartest, most hard working and motivated people on the team. We think that our brand and what we represent is one of our big competitive advantages. To me, branding is something on the surface whereas the brand is something that’s in the DNA of a company. Every company should be really focused on their DNA.

CHARGE: If an energy company wanted to become a brand like Coca Cola or Tesla, brand that we all know and even love, what would be biggest challenge there?

SF: I recently had a conversation with someone about what makes a brand famous and how we drive brand awareness for OVO. They suggested that we should care less about OVO being famous, and ask ourselves what we wanted OVO to be known for? What do we want to achieve? To be authentic, you need to have answers to these questions.

This would be my advice to energy companies who are wondering how to create an amazing brand. Think about what you are offering. What is it about your business, your company, your people, your mission, that is making the world a better place? If you can answer that, you’ve got your brand.