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Behavior Change
Show Me the … Health Benefits?

Utilities, retailers, appliance brands, even public officials beat the same drum to market to consumers: “Save energy! Save money!” It’s an easy refrain, but it’s not the smartest one.

When it comes to selling energy efficiency to homeowners, conventional wisdom says that money talks. Utilities, retailers, appliance brands, even public officials beat the same drum to market to consumers: “Save energy! Save money!”

It’s an easy refrain, but it’s not the smartest one – at least according to Shelton Group’s Energy Pulse trending research.

Bottom line: Most Americans don’t think they’re wasting energy, so why would they respond to a message that tells them to save energy? Nearly 80 percent of us think we don’t use more energy than we did 5 years ago, a number that hasn’t changed in a decade; and 44 percent of us think our homes are already efficient. So, telling that group of Americans they should save energy is essentially offering up a solution to a problem they don’t think they have.

And while Americans certainly want to save money, that’s often not their actual experience when they take steps to make their homes more energy efficient. In our 2018 Pulse research, 44 percent of people who say they’ve done a few things to make their homes more energy efficient say their utility bills went up, not down. There are various possible explanations for this — from underestimating actual energy usage to overlooking outside factors. But that’s beside the point: If people don’t have the actual experience of saving money, marketing savings as the primary benefit falls flat.

So, let’s stop using the “save money” message to get people to improve their homes and tap into two big drivers/cultural shifts that are more deeply emotional and motivating: Americans are more concerned about the environment than they were five years ago, and more worried and aware about their health being negatively impacted by the products they buy and use.

The country is in the middle of a profound cultural shift around sustainability. Conscious consumerism is on the rise, as is awareness of the urgency surrounding climate change. It’s no exaggeration to say that energy efficiency and sustainability are no longer matters of nickels and dimes, but of life and death (though you probably shouldn’t message it in quite those extreme terms).

Our 2018 Pulse research found that 60 percent of Americans believe telling someone that an energy-efficient home is a healthier home is an effective way to get people to spend $1,500 on efficient home features.

In fact, we found that health is the primary driver of better product purchases for food, skin care and home improvement products. Surveying respondents on sustainability messaging, we found that branding products as “chemical free” (which isn’t actually possible) and “doesn’t produce VOCs,” or chemical smells, were the messages that had the highest impact on product purchases in these industries.

The inherent persuasiveness of health marketing coincides with the growing body of research on energy efficiency health benefits now accessible to consumers. A recent Colorado Home Energy Efficiency and Respiratory Health study determined that people living in homes with high ventilation (due to poor insulation and air sealing) experience higher rates of respiratory health issues. An ACEEE report on energy efficiency and air quality found more than 30,000 asthma attacks could be prevented each year through improved energy efficiency — particularly in major cities with pollution. To put a fine point on it, a new study published in the Environmental Science & Technology peer-reviewed journal found that minor energy-efficiency efforts at home such as turning off lights and unplugging appliances could save 475 lives annually.

Americans are increasingly armed with concrete evidence of the health benefits of energy-efficiency improvements — and that concrete data, combined with the emotionally compelling message of health, makes for a one-two punch; much more so than promising savings people don’t think they need or don’t think will actually materialize.

If you want to motivate people to save energy in their homes, take a break from screaming, “save money,” and start promoting a benefit that matters more and resonates more deeply.