Cape Town – Generally, brands that operate in competitive environments are more interesting than those that have no significant competition and vigilant stakeholders to keep a watchful eye on.

This is because the former have to invest resources in reputation and in being the best that they can be to attract loyal customers, grow goodwill and maximise profits. They have to operate within the rule of law and behave like good corporate citizens, ensuring that they put the correct tick on all known rights charters: human rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, animal rights, environmental rights, etc.

This is in addition to their basic responsibility of delivering on the promises they make through their promotional and corporate messages and delivering quality goods and services at the agreed time and place, driven by a clear set of values.eskom

Brands that operate in relatively uncompetitive markets generally get away with delivering sloppy service and poor quality products because they know they can. Ironically, they often spend millions on salaries and benefits for company executives and senior management who, in addition, also receive annual ‘performance bonuses’ that have nothing to do with satisfying customer needs.

Monopolies know there’s nowhere else to run

In some cases, they also benefit from surprisingly huge retention fees. ‘Corporate reputation management’ means one thing for companies operating in a competitive market and something else, if anything, for monopolies like Eskom. Monopolies know that their customers and other stakeholders are trapped, with nowhere else to run when they’re not happy with the quality of goods and services provided, as well as the conduct of company executives.

Things get even worse in highly politicised environments like South Africa, where unhappy customers and other stakeholders easily get treated as unpatriotic – in some cases having ‘treason’ hung over their heads – whenever they voice dissatisfaction with government managed brands, especially when this criticism is voiced in the presence of foreign media and potential investors.

Eskom perfectly fits the description for brands belonging to this category.

After making promise after promise and failing almost each time to deliver as undertaken, Eskom can no longer claim to have a respectable corporate reputation to speak of. The company is known for paying huge salaries to its senior executives and managers on the one hand and, on the other, for poor planning of almost everything it claims to be in control of.

Unplanned outages disrupting economic activity and domestic lives; planned outages often lasting longer than scheduled or not happening according to issued schedules; irregular maintenance of existing infrastructure; failure to complete the construction of new power stations according to plan; strategy-making fatigue after umpteen iterations of turnaround strategies in recent years; procurement processes that seem to be conducted in boardrooms filled with smoke and mirrors; and infighting for power – the wrong kind of power.

Eskom’s forgotten rank and file

Added to this long list are employees said to be forgotten in the battle to save Eskom, reduced to a reliance on media reports to learn about company developments.

Apart from Eskom management, everyone else is unhappy with the quality of service they get from Eskom. All attempts by the otherwise respected Andrew Etzinger, the utility’s acting spokesperson, to bridge the divides between Eskom and the public seem to have come to naught. Etzinger’s normal job is that of senior general manager for integrated demand management.

He should know what is happening in the business but, going by the repeated mismatch between what he says will happen and what ends up happening, something is terribly wrong at Eskom.

The sad aspect of this state of affairs is that things have not always been like this. Some of us recall a very ambitious campaign launched a few years ago when Eskom planned to light up the continent. At the time, it was highly believable; all seemed perfectly possible. Now, even this has become a mere pipe dream.

Experts will tell you that a brand is a promise, or a list of promises. Brand identity is what brands aspire to be known for and brand image is what they’re actually known for. Brands try to enhance their identity through fancy multi-media corporate and promotional messages aimed at influencing their brand image, i e how they are perceived by customers and other stakeholders. There is always a gulf between brand identity and brand image that all brands should continuously strive to narrow.

Going by our experience of corporate behaviour at Eskom, South Africa’s premier power utility doesn’t seem to give a toss about what the world thinks of it.

The answer might lie in the opening up of space for increased competition from bigger independent power producers. With luck, this might force Eskom to invest more in corporate conduct befitting a brand that values its stakeholders. Until then, it looks like we’re doomed to more promises and increased and surprise power outages, all capped with more fruitless corporate speak from Etzinger.

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