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Branding Our Industry - The Need for Consensus

November 02, 2011
November/December 2011
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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News flash: The home performance industry hasn't reached the mainstream. We've been slogging away for 25 years or more, making families happy and homes healthy. But the perceived value of our work has yet to reach critical mass in the general populace.

To use the term from Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book of the same name, we've yet to reach the tipping point (defined as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point"). For all of us working in residential energy efficiency, this should be our collective and most important goal.

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So why haven't we tipped, and how do we get there? There are some reasons that I'm sure all of us will agree on. A significant education gap on the part of most consumers. The fact that for years we've been rope-a-doped by fluctuations in one of our key demand drivers — energy prices. The general complexity of building science.

But that's just part of the story. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is that there is no consensus about what we call the work we do. We call it home performance, weatherization, energy retrofit, efficiency upgrade, affordable comfort. With no agreement on name, it's nearly impossible for a new concept, particularly an inherently complex one, to penetrate the consumer mind-set.

With no consensus on a master term for our work, we resort to selling services — air sealing and energy audits. Or we pitch stuff, like caulk, insulation, or high-efficiency boilers. Or we hawk benefits, such as comfort, energy savings, and indoor environmental quality. It's not that these are bad messages or terms; they aren't. But when you think of all the disparate messages we're pumping into the world, it's not surprising that we haven't tipped. We're all over the map, and as a result, we're failing to capture the imagination of the populace.

Our Current Situation Versus Great Branding

Here are a few terms we use in our industry, and why they haven't gained enough traction in the mainstream.

  • Energy Audit. Makes people think "taxes," but is the one term in our field with Internet search volume.
  • Energy Assessment. More neutral, but flat, and diminishes the depth of the whole-house concept. Gets a fraction of the traffic of energy audit.
  • Energy Efficiency. Too academic.
  • Affordable Comfort. Descriptive, but doesn't get the blood flowing. (Like saying "sensible shoes.")
  • Weatherization. Infers minor upgrades like weather-stripping of doors, and doesn't communicate the whole-house concept. Also confused with low-income programs.
  • Retrofit. A negative connotation and lacks meaning. Retro? Not how we want to lead.
  • Home Performance. Conceptually strong, but has not penetrated the mind-set of consumers.

What we're talking about here is branding, so here are some examples of how others have done it well.

  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD completely altered social expectations, created a clarified call to arms, and in doing so, changed the culture of alcohol.
  • Nike. Nike turned utilitarian footwear into a movement with the Just Do It slogan. It took the ideas of performance, athleticism, and the heroic athlete and stuck them on its shoes.
  • Ivory Soap. Ivory doesn't sell soap. It sells purity, innocence, and goodness.
  • Harley-Davidson. A Harley isn't a motorcycle; it's the ability to be an outlaw for a Saturday morning. It's freedom, the open road, and the American dream.

In contrast, we're mired in an inconsistent sea of features and benefits, materials and green marketing. Not wrong, but a far cry from the penetrating inspiration of Just Do It.

Coming to a Consensus

So how do we come to a consensus on how to brand our industry? With so many global factors in our favor, our branding problem is, in my opinion, our biggest Achilles heel. So we need to approach it with care, but also with urgency. Good brand evaluations start with some frank self-reflection. We need to be honest about what is not working, face up to old chestnuts we've grown comfortable with, and assess which terms are strong and clear enough to rally behind.

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Got an opinion? Contact the author at ptroast@energycircle.com.

I would argue that we need to relegate the selling of features and benefits to a secondary message. Of course you're going to sell comfort when the customer is uncomfortable. None of this discussion suggests that segmented messaging shouldn't be used for audiences with different attitudes and needs. But leading with the benefit du jour is not catching fire. We need a clear, overarching message — a hierarchy of consistent talking points. And we need to use them, over and over again, at every level and across the board.

While settling on a single term that describes this clear, overarching message is a decision that we'll have to make collectively, one of the best ways to get there is with a stalking horse. So here's mine: The right answer is to commit to and rally around home performance.

Hearth and home is core to the American psyche, and home performance tugs at those strings more effectively than any other term we've concocted. The concept of performance plays to our deep-seated fear of falling behind, as well as our competitive love of the win. It forces us to confront our inattention to the operations of our home-our most valuable and long-lasting asset. It is closest to being an all-encompassing term for every aspect of the whole-house concept. It best positions our industry as the go-to resource for your home, regardless of whether the problem is health, or comfort, or energy, or finances.

It's taken me a while to reach this conclusion, and one of the stumbling blocks is the current low awareness of the term among homeowners. But Rome wasn't built in a day.

Inefficient homes, like drunk driving, put people at risk and weaken our social fabric. Ice dams should be as much of a social no-no as drinking and driving. But only through collective agreement, conviction, and persistence can we get there.

Peter Troast is the founder and CEO of Energy Circle.

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