Smiley Power: Green Marketing That Works

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by: Roger Dooley

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 better.

One 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.

Customers 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.]

The 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.

At 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

If 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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