HomeBehaviour changeGovernment needs a national communications plan for energy efficiency

Government needs a national communications plan for energy efficiency

“[Consumers will] want a joined up experience of the government’s energy policies, regardless of the individual policy mechanisms and their origin.”

This quote could so easily have come from the report that Faye Scott and I wrote for Green Alliance that was published this week. Neither Sermons nor silence: the case for national communications on energy use argued for a joined-up national communications strategy for all household energy policies. But these quotes didn’t come from our report, they came from DECC, from their recent consultation on how to engage consumers on the smart meter roll out.

Smarter communications on smart meters
Smart meters policy is a strange beast. For the past few years it has been full of discussions on technical specifications by men in grey suits from energy companies. Full of acronyms like SMETS and IHDs that no-one outside this small policy world would understand.  But from being a policy world entirely focused on logistics and technicalities the juggernaut of discussions are slowly turning to focus on one thing: how to engage people with the roll out.

For after all, if every house in the UK is to have a smart meter, someone, in every one of these houses, needs to let an installer into their home. And if the scheme is to bring about the expected energy reductions that its impact assessment relies on, householders in every home will need to respond to the information they receive from their smart meter and reduce their energy use.

The conclusion the smart meters team have reached is that they need a national communications strategy run by an independent body to give the scheme credibility, consistency, build trust, activate the right messengers and co-ordinate activity with third sector and community groups.

Their decision is supported by the evidence: A review of over 150 household energy efficiency schemes in the USA found that building sustained, simple, powerful brands at the national and state level was essential to building consumer recognition and for the success of the schemes.

Across DECC ambitions are high
But the smart meters team are just one of the many teams in DECC trying to work out how to engage people on energy reduction. And the teams working on Green Deal, Feed-in-tariffs and the Renewable Heat Incentive also have eye-wateringly ambitious targets. To meet them the government needs one home a minute to upgrade its energy efficiency between now and 2050 and just under two homes an hour to install renewable heat between now and 2020. Just to put this in context current numbers of renewable heat installations were just 15 in the first 5 months of the scheme.

These policies are also completely reliant on household interest and take up. And arguably these policies are a far harder sell. Unlike smart meters, which are being provided for free to customers, households will have to pay, with a commercial rate of interest, for Green Deal measures and renewable heating installations all require a substantial upfront lump of cash. There are numerous psychological barriers that will prevent uptake, but just to highlight one physical one: to get a Green Deal households would need to:

  • put time into researching what is on offer;
  • understand and agree to take out financing to cover costs;
  • take time off work (multiple times) to oversee assessors and installers;
  • carry out any preparatory and post-installation work (such as clearing out lofts and re-fitting carpets or re-painting walls); and
  • potentially even move out while installation takes place.

No easy sell….

Talk the talk
Yet currently there is no plan for any supportive government communications for any of these other policies (although the Renewable Heat Incentive team has been talking about roadshows to try and revive its ailing uptake figures). Nor is there yet a comprehensive plan to link these policies all together in some way (despite the smart meters team’s acknowledgement this is needed). Government is happy to continue let these policies loose on the market with a ‘wait and see’ approach. But without supportive marketing it is sending these policies into the world with one arm tied behind their back.

Evidence from recent marketing of change schemes, and from how the consumer engagement programme for smart meters is being set up, shows that central marketing needn’t cost the public purse anything, if established in partnership with the private sector who will benefit from increased uptake of their products. So concerns about finances are not a credible argument.

Not the only answer
We do not pretend that communications alone are the answer. We agree with many of the comments at the debate that launched our report on Monday night around the need for regulation, incentives and policy improvements to help with take-up. One of the panellists quoted Maurice Saatchi’s famous line – “you can’t polish a turd” – to argue that if the schemes themselves weren’t compelling enough, not amount of supportive marketing would get the uptake needed.

This is true. What’s needed to improve domestic energy efficiency is a combination of good policies and good communications. Now government needs to show it understands the importance of the latter – as well as the former.

Effective behaviour change communications So what should the communications campaign include? It is clear from the case studies that any effective behaviour change communications campaign should involve:

  • A clear behavioural goal and call to action: aim to change specific behaviours rather than just influence knowledge, attitudes and beliefs;
  • Evidence based, evaluation and evolutionary; designed based on in-depth evaluation of behaviours relevant to the campaign to understand what competes for the audience’s time and attention and what benefits would attract them to the target behaviour. Monitor evidence, evaluate impact and modify the approach throughout the campaign as behaviours change.
  • Designed using social marketing principles
  • Multi-method creative communications; multi-faceted and multi-layered using a variety of different channels, taking advantage of moments of change and using segmentation to engage particular audiences with different messages.
  • Multi-scale, multi-stakeholder delivery; large-scale national approaches can reinforce more locally specific communications, which link to local concerns. National campaign resources can support local organisations that offer more tailored, innovative communities, as well as pre-existing networks to use as communications channels.
  • Strong brand with sub brands; a strong national brand is essential and will be most effective if it can be divided down into sub-brands for particular behaviour campaigns and for tailoring by different stakeholders. It should be open-source so that diverse stakeholders and actors can ally themselves to it, although its use should also be clearly regulated. It should be used in the delivery of all policies associated with energy savings in the home.
  • Uses information and language people can understand; the brand and the policies it covers should be clearly understandable. No more talk of Feed-in-Tariffs or Green Deals. A national campaign should be compelling and talk in the language that people understand and use.
Written by

Rebekah is a Green Alliance associate and freelance project manager and policy expert on green living projects. On a national level she specialises in the public communication of climate change and behaviour change policy. On a local level she manages projects that help enable and encourage sustainable living. Previously she led Green Alliance's Green Living theme. Prior to joining Green Alliance Rebekah was the Environment and Transport Policy Analyst for BBC News Analysis and Research. Rebekah has also worked for Elsevier Science in Amsterdam, for Landmine Action in Liberia and for Womankind Worldwide. For more information see

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