Utilities Are Sending the Wrong Message on Energy

Typically, energy engagement programs focus narrowly on specific concerns, such as saving money. These programs may hit their short-term goals, but tend to fall short in the long run. We’ve been working with clients for years to solve this problem. We — along with numerous social science researchers — have found that energy consumption behaviors and attitudes are deeply loaded with emotion, and are far from rational. We’ve learned that for effective, long-term results, it’s necessary to make energy human.

What follows is our take on emerging insights from the social sciences and industry — where we see the innovation heading in the field of energy engagement.

Truth No. 1: Information Can — and Should — Be Emotional

Recent research shows that, when it comes to using energy, behaviors are rarely informed by rational, calculated information processing, such as saving costs on bills or “doing the right thing.” Instead, they are rooted in largely unconscious motivations, such as the need to feel safe, secure, accepted, loved, free, and in control. Many of these behaviors are deeply influenced by cultural identity, social networks, relationships, affiliations, and emotional needs.

Putting It into Practice

Don’t rely on information to do the trick. Energy engagement programs, tools, marketing, and messaging should take a holistic approach that leverages underlying motivators for behaviors: purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

Truth No. 2: Incentives Create Instant Gratification, not Lasting Change

The problem with an over-reliance on incentives is twofold. First, incentives require a reward or “prize” to sweeten the deal. Second, the most powerful drivers for behaviors concern our needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But how often are these motivators used within energy engagement programs? Rarely.

Putting It into Practice

Present incentives as one of many perks. When we reach out to constituents, incentives should be presented as one element in a tapestry of functional and emotional benefits.

Truth No. 3: Energy Isn’t Abstract — It’s What Makes Everyday Life Possible

Connecting energy with the fabric of our daily lives through story, narrative, context, and conversation makes it more real and tangible.

Putting It into Practice

Don’t talk about saving energy as “little things you can do.” It’s about “everything you do.” How we talk with people about “how they live” moves us from an abstract topic to more meaningful engagement and stronger brand loyalty and relationships.

Truth No. 4: Saving Money is Just (a Small) Part of the Picture

It’s time to rethink our assumptions about financial rewards being the top driver of participation in energy engagement programs. Mounting evidence indicates that saving money is just one of many reasons why people change their relationship with energy.

For example, a 2003 survey of California residents found that their conservation efforts were motivated by a wide variety of factors. And according to the report, qualifying for a utility rebate was the least common motivation.

We have found the same to be true for our clients. By emphasizing deeper benefits, clearer meaning, and long-term value vs. short-term bursts, they build a platform for more sustainable results.

Putting It into Practice

Tell a more nuanced story than “savings.” When energy engagement programs market themselves as money-savers, they compete with innumerable marketing messages about savings. Instead, energy engagement program marketers should craft messages that reflect deeper benefits and meaning. Conserving energy helps people do more than save; it helps them live better, richer lives.

Truth No. 5: Conversations Convert

Initiatives that involve direct, interactive human contact are highly effective in encouraging people to participate in energy engagement programs. This means having the ability — live in person or otherwise — to ask questions, get immediate feedback, and process all of those nonverbal cues that are so powerful when people come together and talk.

Putting It into Practice

Don’t persuade; engage. We are seeing a shift from a persuasion mindset to a conversational approach. Opportunities for interactivity are critical moments where energy users have the opportunity to ask questions, be heard, and have their needs or concerns addressed.

Truth No. 6: People Have (and Demand) More Control than Ever

We have tremendous opportunities to make choices — in how or where we shop, the media we consume, and the direction we take with our jobs and careers. It’s no surprise that contemporary research continues to reinforce the need to provide people with flexibility and control in their energy consumption as well. This approach is particularly critical as the energy market continues to transform.

This mindset is not only unique to this time and place but a basic principle of human psychology — the need for efficacy. So when we come along and suggest people do something different, we need to be prepared for resistance, which can take the form of ignoring, denying, dismissing, or focusing on barriers to taking action.

Putting It into Practice

Show efficacy through feedback. Of the more well-known ways to show efficacy is what’s referred to as “feedback” — devices, communications, and platforms that make our specific energy behaviors visible. As many utilities have learned, feedback mechanisms are effective — showing people their usage whether through a device or icons on their bill, along with a comparison with their neighbors or others in the region or state, can activate greater participation and flexibility.

Brand Relationship and Energy: What a Deeply Human Approach to Energy Engagement Means

Many factors influence how people choose to use energy and engage in energy-saving initiatives and programs. A deeply human approach should be reflected in the style and manner of how we market energy engagement programs, through appealing to people’s innate and intrinsic motivations to be better, more effective, and capable as humans.

The challenge is to create outreach and engagement that takes this all onboard without singling out specific aspects, such as financial savings or saving the environment. It accounts for all that makes us who we are: our relationships, cultural influences, social interactions, identities, roles, and responsibilities.

It’s a new way of approaching energy engagement.

Lead image: Electricity meter. Credit: Shutterstock.

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Sue Kochan is founder and CEO of Brand Cool, an Integrated Marketing Company based in Rochester, New York. Renee Lertzman Renee Lertzman, Ph.D, is an Environment Engagement, Insight and Behavior Consultant, and Author based in Rochester, New York.

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