“Just being 100% renewable in itself was a piece of activism”

Ian McKee is Head of Communications at Good Energy, a UK-based renewable energy supplier that offers 100% renewable power, solar panel installation, heat pumps and more. In advance of his talk at the Festival of Sustainable Business, he spoke to us about brand activism, greenwashing and communicating sustainability.

Interview and write up by Rin Hamburgh & Co, communications sponsor for the FoSB Conference

What does brand activism mean to you at Good Energy?

I’d say that as a business with a purpose, we’re a challenger brand by nature, which goes hand in hand with being an activist brand. When Good Energy was founded, just being 100% renewable in itself was a piece of activism. Because the rest of the industry was saying it couldn’t be done – at the time there was about 2% renewable power on the UK electricity grid. 

From a supply perspective we’re buying all of our power directly from renewable generators and actually matching it with our customer demand, which is something no other supplier is doing. So all the stuff that you might have seen in the press five years ago about how renewable electricity is going to lead to shut downs, there are going to be blackouts when the wind doesn’t blow, wind turbines can’t be relied on etc – we are living proof that’s not the case.

You also have a reputation for calling out greenwashing – was that a deliberate comms strategy?

When I first started at Good Energy, I went about trying to get press coverage the way anyone would – I picked up the phone to some journalists who I knew and who I thought would be receptive. 

I started talking about renewable energy, guarantees of origin certificates, third party markets and, because I was talking to energy correspondents, they kind of got the story… but then they had to go and pitch that to their editor. At which point, the editor would be like, “What? Certificates? Third party markets? I don’t know what you’re talking about, it all sounds a bit complicated.” It just wasn’t interesting to readers.

The breakthrough moment was when Shell bought an energy supplier and then rebranded it and made it 100% renewable overnight. That became the inflection point where people started caring. We put a blog post out and it went viral, suddenly journalists were contacting us asking for more details. Suddenly there was a story, a narrative. And then we could start talking about all the details that people hadn’t been interested in before. 

What are your top tips for brand activism, sustainability comms and greenwashing? 

I think the Shell story shows that the first thing you need to do is keep it simple. When I was trying to talk about all the details, nobody really cared, it was too complicated. But when there was a clear, simple hook – and a clear ‘bad guy’ in the story – then people were interested and they wanted to find out more.

The second thing I think is important is sticking to the facts and, thirdly, having your own house in order. Those two things go hand in hand. Nobody is perfect and we never tried to position ourselves as perfect but you have to be clear about what you do well and you need to be up front. We’ve got 25 years experience of doing this, and that puts us in a very good position to call out companies that are greenwashing.

Part of my job is making sure we keep our house in order, challenging people internally when we’re making decisions and asking, “What impact is this going to have on our brand, on our purpose?” It’s not that it’s all about image but you shouldn’t undervalue how things look either. If we were doing everything right and ethically and doing genuine 100% renewable electricity supply and revolutionising how decentralised small-scale renewables work, but we weren’t telling anybody about it, there wouldn’t be much point. 

Ian will be speaking at the Festival of Sustainable Business Conference on 14th March 2024 as part of the second seminar of the day “Brand Activism, Communications and Business”, kindly sponsored by The Discourse. Find out more on the FoSB website or book your ticket here.

Skip to content