Brian Keane of SmartPower, Renewable Energy Marketer: "Our Thinking is Twenty Years Behind"

Few would disagree with the idea of clean energy: it can help reduce global warming, air pollution, energy shortages, the national debt, and our reliance on foreign oil. But America isn't exactly putting its money where its mouth is. How to get average people to know that "clean energy is here, and it works," is the task of Brian F. Keane. The head of SmartPower, the country's leading non-profit devoted to marketing clean energy, Keane is using Madison Avenue thinking and grassroots efforts -- like giving away thousands of dollars to the greenest college campus or to the best homemade ad -- in order to hawk clean energy "like it's Coke or McDonalds." How did SmartPower start, and where has it gone?

BK: It was started about seven years ago by a group of private foundations. Our charge was to market clean energy and energy efficiency like it's McDonalds. To get regular people who don't care about clean energy and the environment to buy clean energy and be clean energy conscious.

Today, 84 percent of people in the United States say they want to buy clean energy. Less than 3 percent of people do. Therein lies our challenge and also our opportunity. Our job as marketers is to find out why they're lying to us, what are the mental blocks, and then to create messages that address those barriers.

What tend to be our most common hang-ups about clean energy?
Brian Keane: For thirty years, clean energy has been sold in this country because it's good for the environment. The challenge is what are the motivators, what will make people want to be energy efficent. In the same way that McDonalds or Coke tries to find out who their customers are, by digging deep into the psyche of the American consumer, we found four sigifnicant barriers.

First, they don't think clean energy works. They just don't think it's as powerful as coal in keeping the lights on at night, the heat on in winter, the air conditioner on in summer. The number one barrier is simply just the question of reliablity.

Second, they have no idea where to purchase it. You don't walk into Home Depot to buy solar or Wal-Mart to buy wind. Even if you go online, it's hard to know what to look under. The process of finding it and buying it can be incredibly confusing.

The Greatest Generation are incredible savers. They turn off lights, they don't waste water, in part because they were raised during a depression. Their children meanwhile have a visceral reaction to conservation. They believe the only reason they ever conserved was because they were poor. Baby boomers tend to say "we've arrived, we can keep these lights on. That light on downstairs, it's not creating climate change, and we have plenty of money to pay for that." The children of Generation X and Generation Y are motivated to do something better but don't necessarily know how to. They can see the opportunities they have to be efficient as money saved and money in their pockets.

Third is the cost issue. This is fascinating. People say, "It's just too expensive." But we all buy a lot of stuff that's just too expensive, myself included. Think about our iPhones. Why do we do that? Because this stuff has an intrinsic value. We need to figure out where the sweet spot is. Even more interesting than the cost issue, is the perceived opportunity cost. "If I buy clean energy, I must also buy into a lifestyle." In flows every carciture of the environmental movment — hemp clothes, bellybutton rings, Birkenstocks. So that's the opposite of what we want to do. We want to make this sutff hip, not hippie. And tell people that you don't have to buy into any lifestyle.

Fourth is inertia. Every product that comes onto the market hits this inertia. We've been ironcially fortunate that world issues have pushed inertia aside — war, gas prices, an understanding of climate change. Which leads back to number one barrier—"I don't think it works." We need messages that knock down these barriers.

Conventional wisdom never holds. Some think that wealthy people are more likely to buy clean energy. That just isn't true; city of Hartford, Connecticut poorest commuites in country; 100 pc purchase by year 2010. they really want clean energy; they feel its a health issue for them;; or a city like greenwich CT, perhaps the wealthiest in the nation; it took years and years to make a purchase; taxes going to go up. We thought people would buy this stuff first;

What's been surprising to you about Americans' attitudes toward renewable energy?
BK: Conventional wisdom never holds. Some think that wealthy people are more likely to buy clean energy. That just isn't true. The city of Hartford, Connecticut is one of the poorest communities in the country, but they've committed to make a 100 percent purchase of renewable energy by the year 2010. They really want clean energy because they feel it's a health issue for them. Meanwhile, you have a town like Greenwich, Connecticut, which is perhaps the wealthiest in the nation. It took them years and years to make a purchase, and for taxes to go up. But we thought those people would buy this stuff first.

But lower income communities get it right away. "Our kids have asthma," they say. They have the oldest buses from three fleets ago. "We have to do something. Maybe if we buy some clean energy that's the first step in the process." Smog isn't an issue in Greenwich, so it's not a motivator.

Also fascinating to me: you'd think that in Arizona they must love solar energy there. But in focus groups, they can't stand solar energy. People say things like, "My father put this on our house when I was a kid and my parents almost got divorced because of it." It didn't last. They thought they got sold a bill of goods. But it's like, "you guys live in a desert and you don't think solar works!"

And I've been amazed and encouraged by how people will gravitate towards efficiency once they know it. When they turn off their flat screen TVs with a remote control, and you tell them its still drawing power, they don't want to waste this power unnecessarily. They just don't know they're wasting it.

We need to figure out where the sweet spot is. Even more interesting than the cost issue, is the perceived opportunity cost. "If I buy clean energy, I must also buy into a lifestyle." In flows every carciture of the environmental movment — hemp clothes, bellybutton rings, Birkenstocks. So that's the opposite of what we want to do. We want to make this sutff hip, not hippie. And tell people that you don't have to buy into any lifestyle.

What have proved to be the most effective ways to market clean energy and energy efficiency?
BK: The best billboard for solar is a solar panel. People need to see this stuff actually working. That's when they'll be moved to purchase. Seeing an ad convinces them but doesn't push them to sale. And emphasizing that efficiency is about conservation, that being efficient is an opportunity, not a sacrifice. Saving money, that's where we can get some traction here. So we're working with environmental and energy non-profits. That's been incredibly successful in specific states, like Connecticut, where 88 communities are buying 20 percent clean energy through 2010.

A community-by-community approach works best. The challenge is that there are just too many things to do. I could give you a list of 1000 things that any one individidual could do to be more efficient. It spans everything. When you give the American consumer too many choices, they will do nothing. That's the reason why there is Burger King and McDonalds. Coke and Pepsi. The consumer can't take too many choices. We need to break chocies down, need to start with one thing. You can really have an impact with that, and then move on to the next thing and the next thing. That can spread behavioral changes quite quickly.

For the "echo boomers," who spend seven hours a day in school and 7.5 online, peer-to-peer outreach is best. Nobody likes to be preached to.

Is there something wrong with the way the message is being conveyed?
BK: The problem with ads for clean energy is that they only show you the ingredients. But we need to show what it does, not just how you get it. We need to borrow a page from the ads that oil companies run during "Meet the Press." They show you images of what that product supplies, but they don't show you drilling. They show you flowing fields of grain, warm houses, a lifestyle that you want to live, not oil fields. McDonalds doesn't show you the Fryolater. They show you happy people eating burgers. That's good marketing.

We need to do a nationwide marketing campaign. The thinking is 20 years behind, but not the technology. Amidst all the talk Obama is doing about clean jobs and improving our infrastructure, what's missing is public awareness. This needs to be out in mainstream America. People need to be able to walk into Home Depot and buy solar panels. And we need to stop depicting alternative energy as the energy of the future. We've been telling people for 30 years that solar is the energy of tomorrow, but we need it now.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview with Brian Keane, in which he discusses messaging, energy efficiency and how the government could help sell more renewables.

Tags: Energy | Renewable Energy

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