Why did we do it this way?

Why did we do it this way?

Somewhere long ago and far away, someone decided that the value proposition for energy efficiency was saving money. “Everybody loves to save money,” these energy efficiency marketers likely thought, “and since efficient products use less energy than conventional ones, we should lead with it!”

You all know the drill, though. Most Americans don’t actually see the savings. Utility rates go up sometimes and negate the savings, bad behavior happens (they use the efficient products as a reason to behave in inefficient ways) and/or extreme weather happens and utility bills appear higher, not lower, than they did before the efficient products were purchased. And, in truth, for most folks to see significant savings, they’d have to really spend some money for a deep retrofit. Although the monthly utility bill savings may be noticeable, the cash outlay upfront would be so high that it would take years for the savings to offset the investment.

Thus, the “save money” promise is rarely delivered on. And Americans have noticed.

In our 2016 Energy Pulse study, coming out early next year, it’s clear that Americans aren’t making much progress toward energy efficiency. In fact, over the past four years, likelihood to do (and actually doing) all the energy efficiency measures we track has flatlined. Tired old messaging about savings has lost its potency, if it ever had any to begin with.

Now, to give energy efficiency marketers a little slack: it appears on the surface that Americans are motivated primarily by savings and lower bills. Their top energy-related concern (by far) is the cost of it, and that’s true no matter whether you’re talking to Southerners or Westerners, Millennials or Seniors:

Which of these is your biggest energy concern?

36%: My ability to pay for energy   

26%: The environmental impact of our energy use

23%: Dependence on foreign countries for energy, rather than tapping our own oil and natural gas resources

15%: Using up our energy resources at the expense of future generations

Also, when you ask them why they make or plan to make energy-efficient home improvements, their answer is always, always, always savings. And it’s never even close. This year, 59% cited savings as their top reason; the second-place answer was comfort at 35%.

But saving money doesn’t move consumers to act. And, again, in most cases people don’t really see the savings, so their experience of energy efficiency is the opposite of the promise we make to them to entice them to buy the efficient products in the first place.

Here’s the unfortunate truth: savings works as an emotional driver only when people are fearful. As we look at trends over the last 11 years in our Energy Pulse data, a faltering economy has been the main driver of energy-efficient home improvements. When times are good, the often minimal savings that energy efficiency brings are perceived as not worth the effort; even the catastrophic weather events of the past few years haven’t pushed Americans to take action.

Also, by leading with savings, we trigger left brain ROI calculations and defense mechanisms. Twenty-seven percent of Americans tell us they’re barely making ends meet, and another 25% say they flat-out can’t justify the up-front expense of energy efficiency. So by leading with savings, we trigger folks to think about the upfront cost, and they instantly conclude they can’t afford it.

Yet we all buy things we don’t actually need, that offer no financial return whatsoever, all the time. We buy electronic gadgets for the cool factor, for convenience or entertainment value, we might splurge on an outfit or a nice dinner as a way to soothe some greater worry or just to celebrate life. We buy products for many reasons … and there are many other reasons to purchase energy efficiency products that have nothing to do with saving money.

Those are the reasons we need to be tapping into. Savings should be the secondary message, the justifier of the expense. But the reason to be energy efficient should be about satisfying a greater need, a deeper driver. Once we get that messaging right, we’ll start to get some real traction in the energy efficiency market.


Suzanne Shelton

About Suzanne Shelton

Suzanne Shelton is President and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation's leading marketing agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of the industry, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights in her writing, research, and client work. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz.com, and she speaks at over 20 conferences a year, including ACEEE, AESP, Greenbiz Forum, and Sustainable Brands.

View all posts by Suzanne Shelton →


  1. Which are the greater needs and deeper drivers that will work?

    • That’s a really good question, Robert! In my work on internal operational sustainability in local government, we try messages about civic duty (not just saving tax payer money but also saving natural resources) and social justice (is it fair to consume wastefully when tax payer money foots the bill?). We also work through our overall sustainability education to cultivate an identity of stewardship and make sustainable behavior part of our culture at work.

      This idea of tying energy savings to comfort is intriguing – we do that for how we handle trash and recycling, actually, and it works to some extent. It seems a harder sell in energy efficiency in the workplace though, where we are asking people to tolerate some discomfort for the greater good. I could see working it into reminders to report drafts/leaks (keep the office cozy/cool!) and to reduce unnecessary lighting (incorporating information and messaging about the wellness benefits of natural light).

      What do you think? What values might be good motivators beyond cost savings?

      • Thanks as always Suzanne for a spot on article. They say its about the money but that never gets them to take action. Here are just a few motivators I have experienced with clients over the last 25 years; Stopping bugs from getting in, stopping mice from getting in, my neighbors did it, stopping noise from outside getting in.

  2. Cheap fossil fuels in America do not reflect their costs to the environment. Their environmental impact that society pay can be thought of as a subsidy for the fuel industry. A carbon tax which reflect the carbon footprint of each energy type is needed. American buy Priuses when gasoline prices are high and SUVs when low.

  3. When oil prices dropped to under $1.70 per gallon in our state, we stopped talking about savings. We now focus on comfort, health, investing in your home, and solving specific problems like ice dams and wet basements. A smaller percentage of our customers are interested in lowering their carbon footprint as well. These are the drivers that seem to be working for us.

  4. Our market is non-residential in regard to plug-in refrigeration and freezer units. What is the main driver to motivate commercial and institutional owners of such units?

  5. Comfort, durability, “the responsible (or thoughtful) choice”, and related seems to work for us. I suspect the answers are quite location and demographic sensitive.

Pin It on Pinterest