Marketing an Energy-Efficient Product as ‘Money Saving’ Just Doesn’t Work – Here’s Why

by | Jan 11, 2011

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Our latest national survey had an intriguing finding: More Americans are doing the right things — buying energy-efficient appliances, installing insulation, replacing their light bulbs with CFLs and adjusting their thermostats. Yet their utility bills are still on the rise.

What gives?

The poll, our sixth annual Energy Pulse survey, found 77 percent of homeowners say they’ve replaced their incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient CFL or LED bulbs.

In addition, about half say they’ve replaced their windows with more energy-efficient models, and similar numbers report having replaced their HVAC or furnace, added insulation and replaced appliances with higher-efficiency units. Yet 64 percent say their energy bills have gone up.

That means most Americans—despite their reported efforts to conserve energy and control costs—are getting a jolt every time they open their utility bills. How could this be possible? Four reasons:

1. Utility companies are, in fact, raising rates, which counteracts the savings gained by consumer efforts.

2. With all of our smart phones, HDTVs, laptops, and computers, we’re plugging in more devices than ever before, and consumers don’t realize how much extra energy they’re using.

3. The Snackwell’s Effect (“They’re low fat; I can eat ALL of them!):  It’s easy to believe that because we’ve put CFLs in everywhere, we can leave our lights on all the time, or because we just installed a high-efficiency water heater, we can take extra-long, hot showers.

4. The biggest reason of all: perception doesn’t equal reality. The Department of Energy estimates that only 13% of the sockets in American have been filled with CFL’s, which is a far cry from the self-reported 77 percent.  Consumers give themselves more credit than they actually deserve for their energy conservation efforts.

Bottom line: Perception IS reality. And if Americans believe they’ve already checked the energy efficiency box, yet haven’t seen the savings they were promised, they simply won’t be motivated to make any more changes in their behavior or buy the next energy efficient product.

That’s why those who market energy-efficient products should steer clear of saying, “Buy this product to save money!” It’s a promise that can’t be delivered on.

Utility rates are expected to continue to rise over the next decade. Unfortunately, these rate increases will outrun most homeowners’ ability to counteract them with energy-efficient products. So even with their best efforts (turning off lights, taking shorter showers), and even with significant financial investment (new furnace, new insulation), most Americans will not see lower utility bills.

For those marketing energy-efficient products, the message should be: “With electricity rates rising, take control of what you can!” It’s all about stressing control and energy independence.

Fortunately, energy-saving habits are on the rise. Our study, which polled 502 consumers across the country, found that those saying they’ve changed their behavior to save energy at home (taking such steps as washing clothes in cold water or adjusting their thermostat settings) jumped from 60 percent last year to 91 percent this year. And those who now unplug chargers and other electronics when not in use increased from 33 percent last year to 56 percent this year.

Why are more Americans now conserving energy? When asked the primary reason to save energy or buy an energy-efficient product, the top answer was “to save money” (32%), followed by “to protect our environment” (17%), “to preserve the quality of life for future generations” (15%) and “to be responsible and not waste resources” (10%).

The survey also asked: “Which of these things is the easiest to do that you think would help reduce your utility bill the most—in other words, the easiest thing with the biggest impact?” The No. 1 answer was “raise/lower thermostat settings” (18%), followed by “install extra insulation” (15%) and “unplug chargers, appliances and electronics when not in use” (13%).

What’s the most difficult thing to do? The top answer was “purchase an ENERGY STAR® appliance” (24%), followed by “install extra insulation” (18%) and “unplug chargers, appliances and electronics when not in use” (12%).

In other words, roughly the same number believe buying an ENERGY STAR appliance and unplugging devices are the hardest things to do as those who think they’re the easiest things to do.

Which side you fall on is mostly likely determined by whether or not you’re a true do-it-yourselfer, or whether you think you have time to do these things. (Many a do-it-yourselfer is too busy to do it themselves.) Conserving energy either takes time or money. Both are real barriers… and motivating consumers to get past those barriers requires making real promises that can be delivered on: take control vs. save money.

Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency exclusively focused on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices. The agency conducts four proprietary consumer opinion studies annually: Eco PulseTM, Energy PulseTM, Utility PulseTM and Green Living PulseTM.

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