CSR and Green PR Guidebook: Communicating Energy Efficiency

By Clean Markets . 03 May, 2017 . in Publications

The following article, authored by Clean Markets Communications Manager Ben Block, first appeared in the The Corporate Social Responsibility & Green PR Guidebook, Vol. 7, published by PR News.

Communicating How and Why Energy Efficiency Is Great for Business

From public service announcements to utility company marketing campaigns to corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, energy efficiency has become a popular topic.

The good news is that more homes and businesses are embracing technologies that reduce the need for electricity, heating and power generation. As a result, there are more energy-efficiency accomplishments — and resulting benefits — for companies and public institutions to promote. Benefits include lower utility bills, improved power reliability, fewer carbon emissions and economic growth.

Still, further action is needed to address climate change and avoid increases in electricity prices. The potential exists to reduce annual energy consumption 23 percent by 2020 in the United States through cost-effective, energy-efficiency measures, according to McKinsey & Co., saving more than $1 trillion and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than a gigaton. That’s the equivalent of removing every car and light truck off America’s roads.

But to help drive buyer demand and reach this level of energy efficiency, we in the public relations and marketing fields need a change in our messaging. Information about energy saved or pollution avoided has become repetitive, and studies show it is often not enough to motivate action. For those looking to promote their CSR activities, stating energy facts is likely not enough to improve brand loyalty either.

Here’s advice on how to encourage greater energy efficiency and, with the same approach, boost the reputation for brands creating energy-efficiency success stories of their own.

How to inspire energy efficiency

At Clean Markets, a market development firm working to promote energy-efficiency incentives offered by utilities and states, we have learned over time what message strikes the right chord to inspire action on energy efficiency.

Too often, energy efficiency is promoted by descriptions of energy savings. While financial benefits are important, they are often not enough to inspire the higher cost of purchasing energy-efficient equipment. This is largely due to the fact that energy savings generally accrue slowly over time, providing a financial return that usually pays off in a matter of years. Yet most companies require paybacks in two years or less.

Focusing on the amount of avoided greenhouse gases is also an overly relied-upon approach. More often than not, improving the environment in far-off places is insufficient motivation to pay the extra cost for more-efficient equipment. Even worse, focusing on climate change can have an effect of polarizing and alienating those who relate environmental messaging with political motivations.

Effective energy-efficiency messaging combines the financial virtues of saving energy with an emphasis on the benefits that matter most to the relevant audience. There’s no silver bullet for striking the right message, but there are many energy efficiency benefits that will motivate the business purchaser.

Consider two examples: a manufacturing warehouse and a grocery retailer. Wasting energy certainly affects the bottom lines for each company. Though messaging more likely to resonate with the businesses would focus directly on their core business activities. For the manufacturer, that may be the impact on their workforce. Installing LED lighting can brighten the dark corners of the warehouse, for example, improving workplace safety and worker productivity. Whereas the retailer is most concerned with the cost of their products per square foot of store space. By installing more-efficient refrigeration controls, for instance, a grocery store can reduce food spoilage rates, prolonging product shelf life and minimizing money spent on wasted food.

Likewise, when targeting homeowners, it is important to understand the audience. A range of motivations beyond cost comes into play. If the homeowner plans on settling into their home to raise a family, improving indoor air quality and room-to-room comfort may have extra appeal. For the owners who see their house as a starter home, they may be more receptive to the fact that more-efficient equipment can boost resale value.

According to a study of commercial and residential utility energy-efficiency programs, published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, utility customers are 10 percent more receptive to the non-energy benefits of these programs than they are to energy savings alone. Many potential benefits can influence the decision to invest in energy efficiency. Public relations, marketing and communications campaigns will likely generate favorable results when they incorporate those factors into messaging.

How to promote energy efficiency

Once businesses and public institutions make the decision to invest in energy efficiency, a growing number choose to capitalize on their commitment through public relations campaigns. Among US businesses, a survey by Deloitte found that more than 75 percent are promoting energy-efficiency efforts to their customers.

In part, this is due to the fact that energy efficiency is recognized as an important reputation management tool. The Deloitte survey found that 81 percent of businesses promote energy efficiency to further build their brand.

Translating energy efficiency to brand loyalty, however, is often easier said than done. With any Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment, brand development requires that customers know about the CSR efforts and believe that the CSR activities are being undertaken for genuine reasons.

Clearly there is room for improvement on both fronts. In the annual Harris Interactive corporate reputation study, published by the Wall Street Journal, when asked whether companies demonstrate social and environmental responsibility, the response is most often, “I don’t know.” Meanwhile, the large majority of assessed companies are rated by the public as “poor” or “very poor” on social responsibility.

The problem may simply be a failure to communicate. The energy-efficiency sections of most CSR reports use the same approach as used by many who market energy technologies, with a focus on energy savings and avoided greenhouse gases. Yet it’s unlikely a brand will earn more loyal followers simply by boasting the amount of money the company saved by investing in energy efficiency.

Research shows that consumers understand that business goals often motivate CSR initiatives. Rather than act as if every CSR activity is done for altruistic reasons, public relations efforts can build credibility by acknowledging that energy efficiency first and foremost serves a business need. This is done by demonstrating how a company’s existing priorities are further advanced with the help of energy-saving technology.

Let’s return to our previous examples: the manufacturing warehouse and grocery retailer. Few will doubt the manufacturer’s authenticity if they were to explain that new LED lighting not only reduced their electricity costs but also improved assembly line productivity. The manufacturer is seen as forward-thinking for realizing that new, eco-friendly technologies can advance their business interests.

By focusing on the core business, CSR campaigns can also serve as promotional opportunities. For the retailer, a campaign could highlight how more-efficient refrigeration controls keep their meat selection fresher for longer. The company is promoting their energy-efficiency commitment as well as their excellent selection of ground meat.

When it comes to energy efficiency, honesty is actually the best policy. The benefits of energy-saving technologies are clear and multiplying, for both business and for society as a whole. Now we just need to perfect the message.

Ben Block is communications manager for Clean Markets