The case for an energy ‘mega-brand’

This is a guest post by Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainability communications agency Futerra

When Clement Atlee was asked how Churchill won the war, the answer was “He talked about it”.

This quote opened last Monday’s launch of Green Alliance’s new report Neither Sermons Nor Silence: The Case For National Communications On Energy Use. The report has a single clear theme: it’s time for government to get back to communicating. Especially on energy and climate change.

Our panel debate included Greg Barker MP, minister of state, DECC, Neil Clitheroe, chief executive, Scottish Power, Jill Rutter, programme director, Institute for Government and Hugh Treacy a successful ad man with Arnold KLP.

At one point Greg Barker accused us of being in violent agreement. Which we were. About the fact he needs a proper plan for selling energy efficiency to the British public.

DECC’s current plan for promoting the Green Deal includes:

  • Provide impartial advice via a helpline and website to consumers
  • Create a ‘quality mark’ for Green Deal providers
  • ‘Support Communities’ on Green Deal (nope, I’m not sure what that one means either)
  • Create materials.

The rest of the communications needed will be left to Green Deal providers. That will be a long list of advertising, outreach and even door stop visits.  There is precedent to learn from. Working with Engage, the EU wide Energy Cities campaign to engage citizens and stakeholders locally in efficiency and refit has taught me a few things. From Leicester to Pamplona, galvanizing home energy action requires:

  1. Large scale communications to catch consumer attention
  2. Building public trust in the whole process
  3. Busting myths about energy use
  4. Protecting people against cowboys
  5. Properly training up SME providers rather than just the big guys
  6. Reach those who would benefit most
  7. Change behaviour, especially the unconscious habits in the home

Some of that the private sector IS best placed for. For other parts of the job there simply isn’t a business case for. Government communications is needed to ‘fill gaps’ and make energy efficiency policy greater than the sum of its parts.

Confusing times
Green Deal, FITs, RHI, ECO, Smart meters. There a lot going on in energy efficiency. Although you could be forgiven for missing the wood for the trees.

Each of these instruments alone carry a burden of complexity. DECC published a summary report on the Green Deal in 2010, including a helpful diagram of the ‘customer journey’. This multistep, multi level, multi coloured decision tree process not only reveals how immensely complicated the Green Deal process is. It also misses a first step of “consumer knows/cares about the Green Deal”.

Policy specific confusion isn’t helped by a missing grand reason to want energy efficiency in the first place. With a veritable smorgasbord of initiatives, we have a lot of ‘what’, but we’re missing strong ‘why’.

Gluing it all together
That message doesn’t need an expensive advertising campaign. It doesn’t need billboards. It doesn’t need a Digital Switchover little mascot or a Change for Life media package. It simply needs a brand.

That was the conclusion from our panel. As the Minister left we tried to wheedle an agreement out of him that we need an encompassing energy efficiency message in the UK. However the affable Greg Barker is far too consummate a politician to snap under my Paxman-esque questioning. At most we planted a seed.

This “mega-brand” idea would hold together all the various private sector communications, all the different policies, and reassure the consumer in a market that is still relatively new. Health warning: a brand isn’t a logo – it’s a promise, a story and set of values that help the consumer make sense, and remember, what’s being offered.

A masterbrand also sits neatly between two extreme scenarios that have been suggested. Neither sermons nor Silence cites research commissioned by the Green Deal Network on how to sell the Green Deal. Scenario 1 assumes a fully funded, multi-channel, central national campaign, while the second scenario sees minimal PR work, particularly around launch. It concludes that traffic to the website, call-centre enquiries and installation uptake would be dozens of times higher with a full blown, central campaign.

Scenario 2 is clearly too weak, and the first scenario is not realistic – as Minister Barker pointed out, “there ain’t no money to pay for it”. A masterbrand combines the best of both worlds. Government communications can act as a unifying brand that builds trust in all energy efficiency programmes – the providers can then build the aspirational, status-driven call to action. That’s what they’re best at, not at persuading the consumer to trust them. Like so much of sustainability ; we have a good product, we just need better packaging.

Developing a Masterbrand, a promise, a linking device and a clear rationale isn’t a huge burden on government brains or coffers. The hard work was the policy. It would be a shame if that policy missed its potential for want of something somewhere between a sermon and silence.

2 comments

  • I agree with the main thrust of this argument but has Solitaire actually seen the Green Deal Network’s findings for herself? It was one of the biggest influences on the Green Alliance report (and I must declare an interest as I was responsible for it). Extensive consumer research, backed up by input from a who’s who of major players in this sector (B&Q, British Gas, Energy Saving Trust, WWF to name but a few) convinced us that a major govt. backed campaign (not just a brand) is necessary in order to avoid the Green Deal falling flat. The barriers faced in establishing a market for the Green Deal (lack of salience, understanding and trust) create a textbook case for mass marketing.
    And DECC’s reluctance to bite the bullet is not as simple as there being ‘no money’. The fact is that govt. are rowing back, ever so slowly, from a position of ideological opposition to this kind of investment while at the same time continuing to plough large sums of money into less demonstrably effective activities (I’d love to see the business case for the LEAF funding that was distributed at breakneck speed earlier this year).
    Our modelling demonstrated that a relatively modest £11m spend could deliver enormous benefits in terms of awareness, engagement and ultimately assessments. Importantly, this pump priming would also create confidence in the industry to make their own investments in reaching out to consumers – currently far from a foregone conclusion.
    I am unconvinced that creating a brand but spending little or no money in communicating it would have anywhere near the same impact and it concerns me that by saying that it would, those who know better are letting govt. off the hook.
    The sustainability movement (in which I count Solitaire as a leading light) and especially those who make a living out of communicating sustainability (Soli again!) should be more front footed when it comes to laying out the case for spending actual cash on a project as potentially game changing as the Green Deal. It is every bit as central to our national prospects as the Digital Switchover or Change for Life and we are doing ourselves a massive dis-service by arguing that a few elementary tasks which are undemanding ‘on government brains or coffers’ will be enough to overturn decades of consumer apathy on a topic as rationally convincing but emotionally uninspiring as energy efficiency.
    Potential providers, local authorities, housing associations and community groups who are looking seriously at the Green Deal already recognise this point.
    It’s now time for the stragglers (and I hope DECC) to take this on board too.

    I am happy to share our findings with Solitaire or anyone else who remains unconvinced. Feel free to email me at info@behaviourchange.org.uk

  • I remain unconvinced by DECC’s mantra that ‘the market will deliver.’ Suppliers and providers will (understandably) all attempt to ‘own’ the GD by creating their own branding for it (we are already doing some work for suppliers along these lines). The resultant barrage of different marketing messages could be a huge source of confusion for consumers. Without a clear statement of the values and purpose of the scheme, there is also increased potential for companies to mis-sell it (as seen with FiTs) which could soon turn into a PR disaster.

    Some people at the event expressed opposition to the idea that sustainability should be central to the deal’s objectives, but I take issue with that view.

    Firstly, if this is to be a 20 year project, it needs to be based on something that will outlast Ministers or Governments. It needs to have support across the political spectrum, therefore it needs to based on an idea that we can all get on board with. If it is to be successful as a brand, then clearly defined values are essential.

    Secondly, from the data we have seen so far, the financial incentive for a consumer to take up the deal is nowhere near strong enough on its own. There will need to be other reasons, such as being part of a national effort toward carbon reduction, and to improve quality of life by increasing thermal comfort.

    The size and scale of a centralised mega-brand is up for debate – but it feels like everyone (outside of DECC) agrees on the need for one!

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