As you know I am a massive advocate for sustainability and am keen to learn from companies that have managed to grow and thrive while contributing positively to the planet.Â Sustainability is, thankfully, big news at the moment, with President-elect Joe Biden proposing to make U.S. electricity production carbon-free by 2035 and to have the country achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
But what of consumer attitudes? How can their views also be changed in favor of sustainable products? I recently had the great honor to speak to Brian F. Keane, President, SmartPower and Co-Founder and CEO, WeeGreen about how he and his team have leveraged consumer insight to promote clean energy in the U.S. market for almost two decades.Â
â€œWe started in a time before words such as â€˜sustainabilityâ€™ and â€˜climate changeâ€™ were even part of the lexicon.Â And yet, even then, polls showed that a majority of Americans wanted to buy â€˜greenâ€™ products. Believe it or not, back then 84% said they wanted solar power and yet less than 3% were actually buying it. Our argument at SmartPower was that if only a tiny percentage were buying a $50,000 product then we must be selling it wrong!Â This isnâ€™t just an educational issue, itâ€™s a marketing challenge!â€
The Washington, DC based non-profit marketing firm is dedicated to promoting clean energy and energy efficiency and recently announced a major milestone in its â€˜Solarizeâ€™ group-purchasing program.
â€œWeâ€™ve learned through our research and practice that buying solar happens on a local level â€“ peer-to-peer; friend-to-friend and neighbor-to-neighbor.Â We used that insight to understand what motivates and moves consumers to buy solar â€“ and, crucially, that is the actions taken by their friends and neighbors. Working with our partners over the past decade we have perfected this into our â€˜Solarizeâ€™ community campaign approach. In a three-year period, we have been credited with installing over $100 million in rooftop solar – Thatâ€™s a huge deal for a team such as ours.â€Â
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Perhaps not surprising for a company with consumer insight at its core, SmartPower has recently been named the U.S.â€™s best non-profit marketing firm. The focus on what the consumer truly values has been key.
â€œItâ€™s really been an incredible honor.Â And yet, I think the success weâ€™ve had with our partners Yale University, the Yale Center for Business and the Environment,Â New York University and the U.S. Department of Energy, is that we have uncovered some of the simple basic understandings of human behavior.Â Too often our industry has over-complicated sustainability and sustainability products.Â Weâ€™ve tried to teach people how to make solar panels instead of helping them understand the value they bring to your home and family.Â Think about that:Â when you buy a car â€“ they donâ€™t teach you how to build a car and how a combustion engine works.Â But too often when people buy solar, they wind up in what feels like a PhD-level class on how the sun converts to energy and how the silicon on the panel work with this photvoltaic cells, etc. etc.Â Itâ€™s more than the American consumer wants to know. Â All they want to know is â€˜can it power my home? Can it keep the heat on in the winter? Or the air conditioning on in the summer?â€™ If we canâ€™t show them how solar makes their lifestyle better â€“ then shame on us.â€Â
Intrinsic to the companyâ€™s growth has been using customer insight and understanding how to become a trusted partner to consumers looking to invest in renewables for the first time. Ensuring the consumer does not feel forced or rushed into their purchase is also key to ensuring that the benefits of the technology are well understood:
â€œWhen marketing residential solar â€“ and energy efficiency â€“ the best marketing tool is the â€˜trusted friendâ€™ to guide them in their purchases. That is where we come in. Although we recognize solar is not for everyone, we help guide the consumer every step of the way in their purchase â€“ connecting them to their social circles; to their friends who own solar; to their solar installers; to their lenders, etc.â€
A key facet to the continued growth of the company has also been harnessing the traditional – but often forgotten by marketers – tactic of word of mouth.
â€œWord of mouth works. Of course, it is not a surprise – it isnâ€™t magic.Â Itâ€™s how contractors have been working for decades.Â Since we are constantly being bombarded with marketing messages â€“ we see them constantly on-line; on our smartphones, on billboards on buses as we walk down the street, it becomes increasingly hard for messages to actually â€˜break throughâ€™.Â As a result, the messages we received from the friend at work or the neighbor next door â€“ break through the strongest.Â When your colleague suggests a specific movie on Netflix, youâ€™re more likely to remember it â€“ and even more likely to watch it.Â Same thing with solar â€“ if someone in your social circle has solar â€“ youâ€™re more likely to buy it. Weâ€™ve really seen, time and time again, that what is old is new again.Â Especially when it comes to marketing.â€
The company continues to expand into new states in the U.S., as well as internationally through a collaboration with the U.S. Department of State and the Government of India into New Delhi, while at the same time rolling out the on-line â€œsolarizeâ€ tool, WeeGreen.
â€œAs exciting as the solar market is, we are still just skimming the surface.Â This is still a very young and new market and itâ€™s changing constantly.Â The opportunities are incredibly exciting. Each and every one of us can enhance our lifestyles by being more energy smart.Â Whether itâ€™s through a better thermostat, or lightbulbs; maybe a smarter showerhead or a small composter.Â Â Whatever it is that suits our lifestyle and enhances it helps move people along the sustainable trend lines that works for them and their family. We have found that once someone owns solar, they become truly passionate about sustainability and they become fully â€˜bought-inâ€™ over the long-term on energy efficiency, and climate change. I feel the time now is perfect to get the commitment of the U.S. Government fully behind the efforts of companies such as ourselves and our partners.Â There is a huge opportunity for the next administration.â€
As well as offering a compelling technology and financial solution, Keane and his SmartPower team have clearly realized that key to harnessing the growth opportunity are often the very basic principles of marketing that many of us are guilty of ignoring; identifying the real key barriers facing consumers when they seek to buy new solutions is key, as is clearly articulating benefits. Itâ€™s great to hear about companies pioneering in the sustainability space and I look forward to seeing what they do next in 2021 and beyond.