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There were no Nest thermostats in 1998. Nor Tesla Powerwalls or iPhones. And folks were just beginning to hear about Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives, formed in an era when the big-ticket issue was retail competition in the energy industry.
Issues come and go. Technologies come and go. But as long as Touchstone Energy remains flexible and adaptable, its experience over two decades shows it's here to stay.
Now with more than 730 member co-ops and commemorating its 20th anniversary this year, things look very different from that startup. For example, a Co-op Web Builder site with seamless online bill pay or the Co-op Connections app for your smartphone—something else no one had heard of in 1998.
"If the brand were to remain what we were 20 years ago, we wouldn't be meeting the current members' needs," says Lynn Moore, Touchstone Energy executive director.
Not Your Father's Touchstone Energy
"The brand started as an awareness campaign," Moore says. "You're trying to get your name out there and get everybody to know who you are and what you stand for."
That initially meant running ads and showing up at events with members. Then came mascots, beginning with CFL Charlie and continuing today with LED Lucy, to help children understand about conserving energy. And there's years of research that Moore says is aimed at "knowing what our members at the end of the line need"—and helping co-ops accomplish that.
"We've evolved the 'Three Amigos'"—the three colorful figures featured in the logo—"and the brand of Touchstone Energy Cooperatives into a portfolio of programs, branded resources, and tools for our cooperatives," she says.
That's an ongoing mission, but Moore notes that Touchstone Energy cooperatives have scored higher than other utility groups on the national American Customer Satisfaction Index survey for the last five of the 14 years surveyed.
"Electric co-ops are the gold standard—best in class. And as we've evolved, we've worked to provide tools so that they can maintain that standard or grow in that arena."
Those tools include the National Survey on the Cooperative Difference research and programs like Service Excellence and the Road to Member Engagement. There's also Lynda. com, the online education service covering thousands of topics. It's free for employees of Touchstone Energy member co-ops, and Moore says it's "wildly popular."
But Touchstone Energy's leaders and members continue to look ahead, and they see more than just electricity.
Toward a New Rural America
Nat King Cole may have gotten his kicks out on Route 66, but today, that famed rural road is more likely to be the way home.
Career opportunities give people who grow up on co-op lines a reason to stay and visitors a reason to move in. Moore envisions a future in which co-ops focus on economic development to build their communities.
That means providing the best possible infrastructure and service that's competitive against any other utility. The goal is for businesses large and small to look for both the ideal location and the cooperative model, which Moore says has "more flexibility and agility to meet their needs."
"This is about more than keeping young people in their communities. It's the hope that they find it appealing enough to build their life there and having all the services of a modern city in rural America, where you feel safe raising your children," Moore says.
And the newbies?
"All the coolest places that people go on summer vacation are in co-op territories. There are national parks; they drive Route 66 through all the small towns. Why not link tourism with economic development? Why not pair those two in a way that people start to understand that you can live in those beautiful places, have that lifestyle, and even work remotely?" she says.
This isn't the mission of 80 years ago, but it's every bit as important.
"It may not be electricity; it could be broadband or small business," Moore says. "Whatever it is co-ops can do to keep those communities thriving."
Old Favorites Brought Up to Date
If there's a single iconic Touchstone Energy program, it's probably the Co-op Connections Card. It too is changing with the times.
"The card is getting a facelift this year and enhancements. Where we traditionally printed a card, we now have the option of using an app," Moore says. "The enhancements also offer more savings in the areas of entertainment, travel, theme parks— things that people really want to do with their extra time. These are ways to put money back in their wallets and time spent the way they want to spend it."
"We reached our $100 million mark in health savings, which includes prescriptions," Moore says.
Co-op Web Builder, a tool used by more than 500 co-ops to build a website, is now offered on a new 3.0 version that Moore says addresses many connectivity concerns.
"The reason Co-op Web Builder is so important is that's really your No. 1 engagement tool with members today. They go to the website first. That's your new front door, so you have to make a great impression," Moore says. "It has to be attractive, functional, easy to understand, and have everything at your members' fingertips. You want them to spend time there."
As Touchstone Energy heads into its third decade, Moore believes it's well-positioned to help its members move forward, even if it's into uncharted waters.
"The utility model is changing, which opens the door for new opportunities for the cooperative, for the community, and for their national brand."