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What’s Better Than Saving Money? Saving the Planet

What’s Better Than Saving Money? Saving the Planet
May 17
16:27 2017
Suzanne Shelton

Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO of Shelton Group

Why utilities should start focusing on the environmental benefits of saving energy

If we were to gather up energy efficiency program marketing materials from a sampling of utilities across the country and lay those all out on a conference room table, my guess is that we’d quickly see they all have one thing in common: they’d all promise savings in some form or fashion. We might see blanket “save money” claims or “save energy” claims. Or we might even see “reduce your energy bill claims.”

The point is, most utilities, regardless of size or type, promise savings as the lead (or only) message to motivate their customers to participate in EE and DR programs. Makes sense, right? It’s logical and rational and, in truth, it’s the number one reason Americans offer up for why they would participate in energy efficiency. So by promising “save money” utilities are just responding to the market data and telling people what they want to hear.

The problem is that most Americans don’t actually see the savings. Utility rates go up sometimes and negate the savings, bad behavior happens (they use the existence of the efficient products as justification to behave in inefficient ways) and/or extreme weather happens and utility bills appear higher, not lower, than they did before the efficient products were purchased.

And, in truth, for most folks to see significant savings, they’d have to spend a significant amount of money for a deep retrofit. Although the monthly utility bill savings may be noticeable, the cash outlay upfront would be so high that it would take years for the savings to offset the investment.

Thus, the “save money” promise is rarely delivered on. And Americans have noticed.

Not Motivated to Save Energy

Our latest Energy Pulse study found Americans aren’t making much progress toward energy efficiency. In fact, over the past four years, likelihood to do (and actually doing) all the energy efficiency measures we track has flatlined. Tired old messaging about savings has lost its potency, if it ever had any to begin with.

Now, to give energy efficiency marketers a little slack: It appears on the surface that Americans are motivated primarily by savings and lower bills. Their top energy-related concern (by far) is the cost of it, and that’s true no matter whether you’re talking to Southerners or Westerners, Millennials or Seniors:

Which of these is your biggest energy concern?

  • 36 percent: My ability to pay for energy
  • 26 percent: The environmental impact of our energy use
  • 23 percent: Dependence on foreign countries for energy, rather than tapping our own oil and natural gas resources
  • 15 percent: Using up our energy resources at the expense of future generations

Also, when you ask them why they make or plan to make energy-efficient home improvements, their answer is always, always savings. And it’s never even close. This year, 59 percent cited savings as their top reason; the second-place answer was comfort at 35 percent.

But saving money doesn’t move consumers to act. And, again, in most cases people don’t really see the savings, so their experience of energy efficiency is the opposite of the promise we make to them to entice them to buy the efficient products in the first place.

‘Can’t Afford’ to Save Energy

Here’s the unfortunate truth: Savings works as an emotional driver only when people are fearful. As we look at trends over the last 11 years in our Energy Pulse data, a faltering economy has been the main driver of energy-efficient home improvements. When times are good, the often minimal savings that energy efficiency brings are perceived as not worth the effort; even the catastrophic weather events of the past few years haven’t pushed Americans to take action.

Also, by leading with savings, we trigger left brain ROI calculations and defense mechanisms. Twenty-seven percent of Americans tell us they’re barely making ends meet, and another 25 percent say they flat-out can’t justify the up-front expense of energy efficiency. So by leading with savings, we trigger folks to think about the upfront cost, and they instantly conclude they can’t afford it.

Yet we all buy things we don’t actually need, that offer no financial return whatsoever, all the time. We buy electronic gadgets for the cool factor, for convenience or entertainment value. We might splurge on an outfit or a nice dinner as a way to soothe some greater worry or just to celebrate life. We buy products for many reasons … and there are many other reasons to purchase energy efficiency products that have nothing to do with saving money.

Those are the reasons we need to be tapping into. Savings should be the secondary message, the justifier of the expense. But the reason to be energy efficient should be about satisfying a greater need, a deeper driver.

What Will Motivate Consumers

We believe we have found that deeper driver. Our Energy Pulse survey found that Americans care immensely about the environment, and want to take action to help. A full 90 percent say the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce his or her environmental impact. And 67 percent think that personal energy conservation habits can make a real difference in preventing climate change.

That’s why we’ve created new recommendations for utilities and marketers of energy-efficient products: Start focusing more on the environmental benefits of saving energy.

Why? Taking positive actions for the environment offers an inspirational angle that other benefits – like saving money – simply can’t match.

But there’s one caveat. It’s important to make people feel inspired about saving the environment – but not guilty. If you tell consumers that their old HVAC systems are releasing tons of carbon dioxide, they may react by feeling blamed instead of upgrading to a more efficient system. Instead, we should be tapping into their innate desire to contribute to the common good.

That means inspiring people to feel like all-stars, even heroes, when they take action to save energy. We should be working to give people a rush of positive emotion, and make them proud for taking action.

Just imagine what would happen if we took practical, unsexy stuff like insulation, old refrigerators and SEER ratings and connected them to feeling heroic – like a champion for our planet? That’s when good things will start happening.

After all, saving the planet is a much more powerful motivator than saving a few bucks on your utility bill.

Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment. Her vision is that every home and building in America is energy responsible and sustainability is ordinary.

Image from Pixabay


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