By Reed Karaim
The “brand ID” for the nation’s electric co-ops rounds a major milestone this spring in marking its 15th birthday in April, Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives, the branding program for the nation’s electric cooperatives, can point to a host of accomplishments. The brand program now encompasses more than 50 programs that help electric cooperatives bolster operations and better serve their members. But perhaps its greatest achievement can be summed up in three words: increased member engagement.
“We want to bring power to the doorstep of every electric cooperative by offering them the tools they need to cement bonds with their members,” says Jim Bausell, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives chief operating officer. “At the end of the day, co-op consumers must trust that the brand stands for real value.”
There’s solid evidence that Touchstone Energy Cooperatives member co-ops are earning that trust. In the fourth quarter of 2012, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which regularly surveys consumer attitudes toward some 200 companies, recorded an all-time high rating of 85 for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. That’s nine points higher than investor-owned electric utilities and among the highest scores recorded by any industry group. Twenty co-ops scored a 90 or above, which is usually achieved only by high-end car brands and large household appliance manufacturers.
To reach this level, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives has fashioned a toolbox that includes services such as:
- The Co-op Connections® Card, which provides co-op consumers with discounts at participating local and national retailers and pharmacies.
- Energy education programs, such as Super Energy Saver, aimed at teaching elementary-school children about electricity, electrical safety and energy savings, as well as “Get Charged! Electricity and You” curriculum kits targeted toward instructing middle school students about electric cooperatives and electricity in general.
- Branded hot-air and cold-air balloons.
- SitesAcrossAmerica.com, a web-based clearinghouse of commercial and industrial properties available in electric cooperative service territories.
- Ongoing national advertising and energy efficiency promotional campaigns.
Touchstone Energy Cooperatives’ early forays centered on building awareness of four values electric co-ops share: innovation, accountability, integrity and commitment to community.
“Initially, we zeroed in on what makes co-ops different from other power suppliers,” recalls Nelle Hotchkiss, of the North Carolina Association of Electric Cooperatives, who took part in the brand’s formation. “Now, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives is reviewing new ways to aid co-ops in reinforcing their message while raising member engagement.”
Arguably the most successful Touchstone Energy Cooperatives offering has been the Co-op Connections Card. There are 38 million of these free cards and key fobs in circulation, each customized with the name and logo of 446 participating electric co-ops in 46 states. The Co-op Connections Card allows consumers of those systems access to more than 25,000 discounts brokered nationally by Touchstone Energy Cooperatives or from individual electric co-ops with arrangements with local merchants.
In addition, co-op consumers nationwide have saved approximately $60 million at more than 60,000 pharmacies since Co-op Connections began in May 2007. What’s more, the cards can also be used for trips to the dentist, optometrist, audiologist or even taking pets to the veterinarian.
“No co-op on its own could achieve that volume of discounts for members,” says Kent Singer, Colorado Rural Electric Association executive director. “But through Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, we can deliver those opportunities for savings” he notes.
In 2009, the brand unveiled an aggressive energy efficiency promotional campaign, “Together We Save,” centered around the TogetherWeSave.com website. This year, the website will add a self-directed energy audit instrument that will let users tailor energy efficiency action plans for their residences.
“The tool is perfect for those who’ve already taken the home tour on the website and learned about simple energy savings steps,” explains Alan Shedd of Touchstone Energy. “It will let them make wiser choices about whether to invest in more significant energy-efficient upgrades, such as new windows or appliances. It will even guide someone through deciding if they can do an energy efficiency improvement project on their own, or if hiring a contractor may be a better idea.”
The next 10 years
Over its first 15 years, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives has worked to boost public recognition of the co-op difference and assist member co-ops in instituting a series of best operational standards, practices and benchmarks. As the brand drives forward, Martin Lowery, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association executive vice president of external affairs, sees it lending expertise even more directly to co-op member engagement.
“Touchstone Energy Cooperatives is studying how to help cooperatives enhance local outreach activities and really be viewed as integral parts of the regions they serve,” he points out. “The brand could end up creating resource libraries on topics such as infrastructure development, water quality and other areas critical to supporting consumer-driven quality-of- life improvement efforts. This kind of undertaking goes well beyond electric service and focuses on the real purpose of cooperatives.”
Back in 1998, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives came into being with a sole television ad. Since then, Bausell has witnessed the emergence of “a true brand that encompasses every element of our identity as cooperatives.”