Smiley Power: Green Marketing That Works

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Roger Dooley, a contributor to FUTURELAB: The Marketing & Innovation Blog, describes the green marketing benefits of offering positive reinforcement for energy-saving behaviors.  He reiterates some of what we know from ecoAmerica's research, that negative messaging doesn't work for many audiences but that a little smiley face on a utility bill can go a long way.  

Posted Feb 18, 2009

By Roger Dooley, FUTURELAB

Could a simple smiley face on your power
bill change your consumption? Utilities in various states, tired of
unsuccessful attempts to encourage energy-saving strategies by their
customers, are resorting to an approach based on sound neuromarketing
principals: social pressure. As I noted in my post, Green Marketing Doesn’t Work,
traditional appeals to “Save the Planet” aren’t effective, while
pitches showing that other people are behaving as desired DO perform

simple approach employed by a California utility is to use smiley (but
not frowny!) faces to highlight how an individual household compares in
its energy usage with its neighbors.

Last April,
[the Sacramento Municipal Utility District] began sending out
statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their
energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size
that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with
the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

who scored high earned two smiley faces on their statements. “Good”
conservation got a single smiley face. Customers like Mr. Dyer, whose
energy use put him in the “below average” category, got frowns, but the
utility stopped using them after a few customers got upset. [From the
New York Times – Utilities Turn Their Customers Green, With Envy by Leslie Kaufman.]

utility found that consumers who got the personalized energy report cut
usage by 2% more than those who didn’t. That doesn’t sound huge, but
even small percentages can have a big impact on utilities.

The reports are generated by Positive Energy,
a firm in which persuasion expert Robert Cialdini has a stake. Cialdini
notes, “It is fundamental and primitive. The mere perception of the
normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

In some cases, the effort goes beyond mild social pressure and becomes outright competition.

Central College in Pella, Iowa, students in a new green dorm can go to
the school’s Web site to find out how much power their suite is using
and compare it with that of other suites.

“It gets pretty
intense,” said Michael Lubberden, director of facilities planning and
management for the college. “The students even go off campus to charge
their cellphones.”

A Massachusetts non-profit, the BrainShift Foundation,
is actually organizing a reality TV series, “Energy Smackdown,” in
which homeowners compete to save energy. Savings as high as 66% were
generated in the competition.

The Magnetic Middle

there is any danger in sharing energy consumption data among neighbors,
it is that the most efficient households may actually INCREASE
consumption if they find themselves below the average. Cialdini himself
indentifies this problem in his book Yes! ,
dubbing the phenomenon the “Magnetic Middle.” Still, in these frugal
days, the danger of efficient energy users sliding into more wasteful
ways seems low.

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