In the run-up to its entry into the electricity market, Bord Gáis was told by David Bunworth that getting 80,000 customers to switch to it would be a success. Then the recession hit and the 'Big Switch' campaign took off. In the first few months after the launch, more than 200,000 electricity customers moved to the company.
As the then managing director of Bord Gáis Energy, Bunworth was responsible for the campaign. After four decades in senior marketing and commercial jobs across some of the country's biggest brands, the success of the 'Big Switch' took him by surprise.
"The timing was remarkable. I was saying to people 'we might be able to get 100,000 customers'. But to get 220,000 after nine months was amazing," he said last week.
The success, he said, was down to knowing what customers were looking for. It wasn't just about a discount: Bord Gáis needed to make it easy to switch so a customer could move within hours, and if they wanted to leave, they could do so without any problem. That meant no contracts and potentially a loss of money to the company.
It was this attention to what customers demanded that was behind the success of its entry into the electricity market, he said. But after building up a large share of the electricity market for Bord Gáis, Bunworth is stepping down from the company. Having turned 60 last year he said his days as a full-time executive are over (though he will still act a consultant to the company).
It's a pity for the semi-state to lose such an experienced executive. Over the years, Bunworth has built up brands including Solpadeine and Panadol and led revamps at Aer Lingus, Gresham Hotels and Bewleys.
Marketing, though, doesn't get the recognition it deserves, he said. Most companies, particularly plcs, have few people at board level with any commercial or marketing experience. Instead they are most likely to come with financial, legal or technical backgrounds. It means there is less of a focus on what customers want, he said.
"I've said it for the last 20 years: marketing people haven't been brilliant about driving the strategy of a company. They get sidelined into the area and it is seen as advertising, promotions and public relations. It's fundamentally not about that. It is about taking a customer's point of view. If you don't, then marketing just plays a peripheral role. The great brands out there like Virgin, Apple and Nike take marketing seriously," he said. "What makes a good brand is when the organisation has understood what the brand means to customers."
He also believes Ireland is losing control of creative marketing talent as multinational companies swallow up native brands.
"I would just hate to see good Irish brands go. You are importing [marketing strategies] rather than creating them. You have to wonder about the quality of marketing people. What will they learn? It won't be their creative ideas. That's why I have a great regard for the food companies and people like CRH and Greencore. They are building a brand from Ireland and exporting it abroad."
Having been involved with several Irish brands, Bunworth is well-placed to give his opinion – both of successes and failures. As commercial director of Aer Lingus in the 1990s he was behind the relaunch of its business class service. As the airline was demanding premium fares, it needed to offer a service to match. However, the upgrade of its service, improvements to business class lounges and frequent flyer programme, was overshadowed by the horrified reaction of passengers to a new version of the airline's iconic shamrock on each plane. The tilted shamrock is all people remember of the revamp.
"It pisses me off. It was a good example of where our communication wasn't good. The aircraft had to be painted and it cost half a million. We spent over €12m on product improvements but the tilting shamrock is what people remember. It was about 5% of the work we did. That was all lost. All I can remember is people going on about a tilted shamrock."
While at Aer Lingus he was head-hunted by Denis O'Brien to lead Esat's marketing. It was an exciting opportunity to take a new brand and put it up against the giant that was Eircom. Unfortunately, while he was working out his notice, Esat succumbed to an offer from British Telecom. Although he stayed on after the bid, he left in 2002 (with his pockets full after his stock options were cashed in).
From there it was on to another iconic Irish name in need of reboot – the Gresham Hotel chain. This too would be a short stint in what was a strange situation. Bunworth was one of four directors voted off the Gresham board in a coup mounted by an Israeli investment group. The chance to rebuild the hotel chain was lost and the group was eventually bought by property developers.
It didn't take long before he was persuaded by Paddy Campbell to take over as managing director of Bewleys Cáfes, another brand whose image needed rejuvenation. While the catering and coffee roasting side of the business was fine, the cáfes were in dire need of a change. This was at a time when Ireland was falling in love with coffee and Bewleys was being left behind.
"Bewleys was a magnificent brand but their representation through the cáfes wasn't good. I remember it in the 1970s and 1980s but the world moved on. The manifestation of the brand had become breakfasts of eggs and sausages and black coffee. That wasn't what you'd seen in Venice coffee houses. Whereas the product they had in supermarkets was excellent, in a retail area it didn't work. They should have outsourced it to people who understood the theatre of retailing," he added.
That eventually happened, though by then Bunworth had moved on to Bord Gáis. There's no doubt the firm's move into electricity has been a success but Bunworth said it won't end there. The company will launch a service shortly to provide energy efficiency advice to homes.
After nearly 40 years he's stepping back from executive roles but he's not retiring fully just yet.
"I'm trying to get involved with three or four non-executive roles. I think a non-executive director shouldn't manage a business but they should have a strong voice to challenge the executives."
The Bunworth CV
Education: Trinity College Dublin
Career: Former managing director, Bord Gáis Energy; chairman of the Gate Theatre
Family: Married, two children
Hobbies: Theatre, golf