Why we should shift to local climate metrics

March 6, 2016

The world recently surpassed an increase in average global temperatures of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) as compared to pre-industrial times. This was a significant milestone, as it marked that we are halfway to a tipping point at which scientists believe the impact of climate change may become irreversible.

One might think that such an ominous milestone would have been met with broad public concern. After all, a 1 C increase in global temperatures means that climate change no longer can be considered a future phenomenon, as the adverse effects are being felt today. Instead, this milestone barely made it into the daily news cycle.

While other global events often drown out focus on this critical topic, another reason may be that average change in global temperature is a flawed metric for communicating the seriousness of the issue with the broader public.

First, a 1 C change is an abstract concept for most. In the human experience, no one would bat an eye if the ambient temperature changed by so little, so it is not intuitive that such a seemingly small temperature change on a global scale could wreak such havoc on our environment.

Second, an average implies uniform change globally, when, in fact, it has been highly variable across geographies, topographies and seasons. For example, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the past four decades, surface temperatures have risen 2.5 times more over land than over the oceans. Such a dramatic increase in land temperatures is lost when using averages, even though it disproportionately will affect the human condition in the near term.

Climate communicators need not to look far afield to understand the flaw in relying on averages. As the marketing adage goes: “There are no average customers. Some people like iced tea and some like hot tea, but very few ask for lukewarm tea.”

Communicators should rethink how rising temperatures are communicated to the broader public. One logical shift would be to more broadly communicate local or regional temperature changes and trends. This could be based on annual regional averages or by season. Doing so also would highlight dramatic changes that disproportionately affect local environments and ecosystems.

For example, while global temperatures have risen 1 C on average, average local temperatures already have risen 1.7 C in Alaska, and a whopping 3.2 C during Alaskan winters since 1949.

Similarly, the Southwest has experienced a dramatic increase in summer temperatures over the last four decades, now averaging 2 C higher. While some might expect such increases in a largely arid area such as the Southwest, average temperatures also have risen dramatically in other regions such as the Northeast where average summer temperatures are up 1.7 C during the same period.

Yet while local metrics may be more effective than global in communicating the seriousness of climate change, research suggests that there may be a limit to how effective any metrics are, as people tend to value their own experiences over statistical evidence.

Such preference for personal empiricism can be detrimental, of course, if it if it leads people to dismiss scientific evidence such as the very existence of anthropogenic climate chance.

But it also can also be a good thing if personal experience and intuition concurs with scientific findings. In fact, studies indicate that humans are able to perceive local temperature changes as well as changes in the onset and duration of seasons. Significantly, “individuals who live in places with rising average temperatures are more likely than others to perceive local warming.”

If the public already senses rising local temperatures then the proper role for metrics is not to use them solely as evidence to convince individuals that change is actually happening, but rather as affirmation of a change already being felt locally. This would necessitate a shift in how we communicate metrics from reporting to validating personal experience.

Such validation would strengthen conviction around what many people already know and embolden them to share their views with others, amplifying word of mouth.

 


What Green Businesses Can Learn from Obama’s Campaign

December 14, 2012

Although President Barack Obama ran a successful campaign and won a decisive electoral-college victory, the margin in key battleground states was slight. Indeed, a shift of 407,000 votes across four of them — Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia — would have given Mitt Romney the 69 electoral votes he needed for victory.

Big data has been touted as key to Obama’s victory — and securing winning margins in swing states — by enabling the campaign to focus scarce resources on voters who could be persuaded to vote for Obama and, once persuaded, were likely to actually vote.

Critical to this effort was the Obama campaign’s recognition that voters may be demographically similar while at the same time strikingly different when it came to the issues that they cared about. As Dan Wagner, the campaign‘s chief analytics officer, told The Los Angeles Times, “White suburban women? They’re not all the same. The Latino community is very diverse with very different interests. What the data permits you to do is figure out that diversity.”

For the Obama campaign, a key to victory was to precisely understand which issue would be most persuasive to a voter’s choice and then microtarget like-minded voters with messaging that relayed the President’s stance on the issue and his action plan to address the issue going forward.

Underpinning this effort by the campaign was market research to determine the precise issue that most effectively influenced voter decisions — and which voters cared about which issues. The campaign also targeted known supporters, asking them to reach out to Facebook friends in swing states in hopes of influencing their voting decisions.

Such microtargeting is not limited to campaigns. Companies can also use this approach to identify and shape green brand preferences, and ultimately, purchase decisions. Here is how:

Focus on consumer persuadability. Politicians are known for boasting to voters about what they have done while in office and expecting voter support in return. This is similar to how many brands tout their green accomplishments today: more recyclable, safer chemicals, reduced material content. But, as in politics, such accomplishments may not be relevant to consumers, green or otherwise. Nor are they necessarily factors that influence brand preference and choice.

In contrast, the Obama campaign had a laserlike focus on the issues most associated with influencing voter decisions. Brands can learn from such an approach. By determining not only what consumers care about but also prioritizing messaging to focus on those needs most associated with consumer preference and choice, brands can have greater impact for a given investment. In each case, market research is required to reveal what cares or needs have the most influence on preference and choice and for which audiences.

Method’s recent Clean Happy video campaign illustrates such an approach. The campaign targets household decision-makers and focuses on a broad range of consumer cares and needs and how Method’s products deliver on each.

For example, one video titled “Clean Like a Mom” promotes Method household cleaning products that contain safer chemicals than traditional cleaners. But, instead of focusing exclusively on product attributes, the video highlights how Method products address specific consumer cares, namely, kids’ safety and the desire by moms to be perceived by their peers as doing the right thing. Presumably, Method did market testing and found out that with moms, these issues motivated greater brand preference and choice than alternatives.

Interestingly, green marketers can effectively influence consumer behavior even if consumers do not consider themselves to be green. One dramatic example comes from a Yale University/George Mason survey that segmented Americans based on their attitudes toward climate change.

The survey revealed that two consumer segments — the one most alarmed by and the one most dismissive of climate change — were the most future-oriented in terms of their outlook. Such attitudinal similarities provide a potential opening for marketers to try a more future-focused message when selling greener products to these segments despite their polar opposite views on climate change.

Be true to your brand. Some politicians try to reinvent themselves in order to tell voters what they want to hear. Arguably, this is similar to a brand that wants to engage consumers on green issues but is not currently perceived in the market as being green.

Brands do not necessarily have to be known for being green in order to be relevant to consumers. Instead, brands should tell their story in a way that is true to their existing brand positioning.

Unilever’s Axe is a great example. Known as an irreverent brand that uses the sex appeal of its products to drive sales, Axe launched its “ Showerpooling” campaign to engage its customer base on the issue of water conservation. The platform uses showerpooling — sharing showers — not only as a way to grab attention, but to make it relevant with the audience. The campaign jokes: “It’s not just environmentally friendly … it’s all kind of friendly.”

Target microsegments. The Obama campaign identified microsegments through research and projected these against a database of registered voters in a nationwide effort to influence voter choice. Of course, marketers could develop their own database by encouraging consumers to sign up for ongoing communications from a company.

But, even without a database, marketers can certainly target microsegments online. This can be done by targeting green consumers on contextually relevant sites, retargeting those visitors elsewhere online or by partnering with a demand side platform to identify and target audiences with like-minded profiles regardless of where they go online.

Turn loyalists into influencers. The Obama campaign successfully tapped its supporters to motivate friends in swing states to vote. Similarly, advertising campaigns should activate loyal customers to serve as influencers and advocates for the brand. Method deployed a similar approach in its recent campaign by distributing fun videos through social sites such as YouTube and Facebook and providing incentives for viewers to share them.

The Obama campaign demonstrated the power of microtargeting to influence voters, and arguably, affected the outcome of the election through this technique. Obama’s success was bolstered by focusing on specific issues most influential with specific voters, rather than a more general message. Such a campaign provides many lessons for green marketers — as well as the opportunity to take a similar approach to drive adoption of green products.


Growing Business Opportunities in Home Lighting, Heating

November 10, 2012

A ban on incandescent light bulbs took effect in the European Union last month, making more efficient lighting technologies — including compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs) — standard across Europe. Such a milestone reminds us that market shifts — whether spurred by regulation or innovation — open up new opportunities for businesses to sell greener products and services to consumers.

Many of these emerging opportunities focus on efficient home energy solutions for consumers. Here are two that businesses should consider:

Next-generation lighting

The European Union isn’t the only region phasing out traditional incandescent lightbulbs. In 2007, the United States passed a similar regulation that effectively eliminates many of those bulbs by January of 2014. Initially, this mandate spurred demand for CFLs, likely from niche consumers willing to pay a higher price for an emerging technology that promised lower electrical usage and longer product life. But, since 2008, CFL purchases have declined each year, despite a precipitous drop in price.

Today, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, two thirds of the energy savings potential from CFLs has yet to be realized. As such, with the U.S. pulling out of the recession and consumers more willing to open their wallets, businesses have an opportunity to spur demand for next-generation lighting products.

Retailers are showing renewed interest in efficient bulbs. Ace Hardware, for example, recently declared Oct. 18 to be Annual Light Bulb Day to raise national awareness for CFLs and other lighting technologies. It also offered discounts on purchases to motivate foot traffic and drive sales.

Alternatively, Ikea has chosen to bypass CFLs: It plans to stock LEDs exclusively by 2016 because it believes the rapidly evolving technology will likely outperform CFLs in the near future. By picking a winner in the lighting category, IKEA generated a lot of buzz for its stores and interest in this emerging technology.

Utilities and utility regulatory boards are also spurring demand as they comply with state energy-efficiency mandates. For example, Efficiency Vermont, an organization authorized and funded by the Vermont Public Service Board to promote energy efficiency, launched a successful campaign to increase the use of CFLs. The campaign tackled the perception that CFLs were more expensive by advertising 99-cent bulbs available at participating retailers. It also created a sense of urgency (“good while supplies last”) to drive demand. The campaign was so successful that it doubled the number of CFLs sold per month.

Natural-gas home heating

Meanwhile, another home-energy opportunity is emerging: converting home heating systems from heating oil to natural gas. Not only would shifting to natural gas greatly reduce carbon emissions and improve local air quality, but — in most cases where gas lines are nearby — would also generate very positive returns for homeowners.

Technology innovation is precipitating this opportunity by unlocking vast amounts of natural gas in shale formations across the country. Many such formations are concentrated in the northeast, a region that historically has relied more on heating oil, partly because of the region’s limited pipeline capacity for bringing gas from the Gulf of Mexico. With natural gas supplies increasing, the residential price has dropped dramatically from its peak in 2005-2006.

Simultaneously, the residential price of heating oil has grown dramatically, providing even more incentive for households to switch to natural gas. In fact, according to the Energy Department, the average heating-oil-heated household now spends more than three times as much on heating ($2,298) as the average natural-gas-heated household ($724).

Of course, many of the developments in natural gas are the result of hydrofracking, a controversial extraction process. Many believe that hydrofracking risks contaminating aquifers used for drinking water, although the degree of risk is up for debate. And while greener fracking technologies are emerging, they haven’t yet reached commercial scale. Still, the benefits of shifting away from heating oil to natural gas may outweigh the costs.

If shale gas extraction continues, there are many ways that businesses can promote natural gas conversion to consumers. Certainly, energy companies can motivate their own customers to make the switch through the use of incentives. Utilities such as Con Edison are already helping to coordinate clusters of property owners to convert together, thereby lowering the upfront costs for individual customers.

Banks also can promote natural gas conversions by extending loans to help consumers make the switch. One such loan program by People’s United Bank covers the upfront conversion costs for Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas customers.

Market shifts in regulation and technology are enabling new opportunities to provide efficient home energy solutions for consumers. Many businesses are already starting to take advantage of this. Those that aren’t yet should take note: As the U.S. continues to emerge from the recession, consumer appetite for such solutions is only likely to increase.


How Mobile Apps Keep Shoppers’ Footprint Local

September 23, 2012

Today, many are touting the benefits of buying locally produced products because — all else being equal — these products have less of an environmental footprint because they travel shorter distances to market. Yet, there has been less attention paid to how far shoppers travel to make their purchases — and the opportunity to reduce their environmental impact when doing so.

Interestingly, many consumers view eCommerce as more eco-friendly than shopping on Main Street because they don’t have to travel from their homes to do so. But, environmental impact studies on the topic are mixed, and the actual answer depends on a lot of factors, including the number of products purchased at a time, the density of the surrounding area and the distance traveled to a store.

Moreover, online is estimated to represent only 7 percent of retail sales in the United States, with the vast majority of goods and services still being sold through traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.

Given that the overwhelming majority of sales are made offline, the Internet — and increasingly Internet-enabled mobile devices — arguably can have a significant impact how people shop when used to facilitate offline transactions closer to home. To that end, new mobile players with location-based services are emerging that aim to drive hyperlocal shopping.

For local businesses, such apps provide new ways to reach local audiences and drive foot traffic. Consumers benefit from the added convenience of finding what they need nearby. The environment also wins as consumers travel fewer miles to shop. Here are a few examples of mobile offerings that hold the potential to reduce the environmental impact of shopping:

Business locators. AroundMe is a popular app that takes advantage of geolocation capabilities to enable consumers to find businesses nearby. This app allows consumers to search merchant categories such as restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores, and displays results based on proximity or price (gas stations) or even availability (hotels). Such an app drives foot traffic to local establishments based on search results, as well as geo-targeted ads, while reducing the environmental impact of consumers traveling father distances to shop.

Product locators. JiWire recently launched Compass, a mobile advertising platform that enables retailers to target mobile users with relevant ads based on the location. What is interesting is that Compass can geolocate products from more than 200,000 retailers, allowing customers to then text or call retailers to put an item on hold for purchase. Not only does this create a superior consumer experience, but it enables consumers to avoid extra trips to make a purchase.

Location-based marketplaces. Grabio is a local marketplace that allows individuals and businesses to buy and sell goods through mobile devices. For local businesses, Grabio provides a new channel to reach consumers nearby. Local businesses can create mobile storefronts to list inventory, and conduct transactions using Grabio’s built-in mobile payment system. Because it is location-based, users know the exact location of the posting, providing added convenience — as well as reduced eco impact — when consumers make purchases closer to home.

Goshi, another emerging mobile marketplace puts a unique twist on this model by providing local “hubs” — a coffeehouse or other public meeting space — to exchange goods. The site allows local artisans and other businesses without storefronts to conduct transactions locally.

In-store rewards. Shopkick is a popular mobile application that provides consumers with rewards for shopping at — indeed, just walking into — a store. For retailers, the app generates much-coveted foot traffic – conversion rates are high once consumers walk in the door. While, today, most of Shopkick’s customers are national retail brands, the app holds significant potential for local retailers, by serving as a local loyalty program and keeping customers shopping closer to home.

Emerging mobile apps are motivating more consumers to shop locally. eCommerce was once hailed as a more eco-friendly way to shop because it eliminated the need to drive to a store. Now it should be mobile’s turn to help reduce the distance consumers have to travel to shop.


Uncharted Waters: Reframing Climate Change Around Water

October 17, 2011

Einstein is credited with saying that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Such words have renewed meaning when it comes to messaging about climate change as everything about it seems complex – its cause, its impact, and the challenges that humans face to address it. Just describing climate change poses a formidable challenge for communicators. Its causes are many and not necessarily intuitive to grasp.  Likewise, its impact is difficult to comprehend, especially given how interconnected Earth’s natural systems are.

Like any marketing communications challenge, consumers needs sound bites that relay information as simply as possible, but no simpler. The message needs to be relevant to their daily lives. The narrative needs to be easily digestible and sharable so that it quickly becomes part of the broader lexicon. It also needs to instill a sense of urgency, but not leave a feeling of being overwhelmed.

One possible way to address this challenge is to reframe the climate change conversation around water. This shift is necessary for many reasons:

First, the current narrative around global warming is too complex and abstract for most audiences to grasp fully: rising temperatures, melting polar ice sheets, burning rainforests, rising sea levels, and so forth. Focusing on water enables communicators to simplify the message, as water is familiar to all of us and essential for our own survival. Rather than shortchanging the complexity of climate change, communicators that narrow the message enable consumers to more easily digest it.

Second, focusing on water allows us to shift communications away from the cause of climate change to its impact. Natural water variability is expected from year to year, but overall, supplies in the US, even in the arid west, have traditionally been relatively predictable from year to year. In the current world, a “100-year” drought actually only occurs every 100 years.

Yet, climate change has already disrupted this paradigm. Today, we are shifting to a world of water volatility, where the probability of extreme droughts and floods increases dramatically. For example, in 2010, the Amazon rainforest experienced its second “100 year” drought in 5 years. When this happens, people start to pay attention.

Finally, water enables communicators to reposition global climate change as an inherently local issue. It has long been the case that consumers have had a difficult time connecting with – let alone financially supporting – global environmental issues. Redefining climate change as a local issue makes it more personal, and provides an opportunity to motivate more grassroots support for action at the local level.

Yet, today, the impact of climate change is being felt closer to home. Local communities in the US are being devastated by water – or the lack there of – from extreme droughts and wildfires across Texas to torrential rains and flooding in Vermont. Globally, the impact has arguably been more severe because people in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and even China have fewer resources to cope with it.

To this end, it is important to outline a communications construct that shifts the focus of climate change to its impact on water. Here is one approach:As communicators, we face the ongoing challenge of constructing the right narrative that engages audiences on this important issue of our time.  Simply, but no simpler.

The best way to do so is still open for discussion.

What is your approach?


Green Groupon

November 14, 2010

Group buying platforms like Groupon and LivingSocial are growing rapidly. Such platforms aggregate consumer demand in order to purchase goods or services at a significant discount. A minimum number of customers must commit to purchase before the offer can be fulfilled for all.

Consumers have fallen in love with group buying because it provides access to discounts which they couldn’t previously take advantage of. Marketers are also having a love affair because it facilitates bulk sales – guaranteeing a minimum volume – and upfront payment. Moreover, such platforms increasingly allow marketers to target specific offers to consumers based upon demographics and category interests.

Green marketers should take advantage of such platforms. Not only do such platforms drive bulk sales, but they can also expand the market for green products. Here’s how:

Platforms target interested consumers. Group buying sites can easily create green affinity groups in order for marketers to more precisely target those already predisposed to greener offers.  Such segments can be based on either self-reported data or past engagement and purchase behavior.

Discounts overcome price premiums. Making a product more eco-friendly is often associated with higher costs.  When demand is aggregated, companies are more willing (and able) to provide discounts, making them more price competitive with less eco-friendly alternatives.

Peers influence purchase decisions. Group buying platforms can help influence purchase decisions through the power of social messaging. Most group buying sites provide real-time tallies of the number of consumers that have committed to purchase each item, as well as the number still needed to strike a deal. Such techniques are powerful motivators of consumer behavior by providing peer affirmation for their purchase decisions. This is especially important for greener products that may traditionally appeal to a niche audience. The more consumers believe that their peers have committed to purchase a product, the more likely that they will also give it a try.

Group buying platforms have provided a new marketing channel for many traditional products and services – green marketers would do well to similarly experiment with this platform to help expand their audience.


Green Product Paradox: When Too Much Good Is Bad for the Environment

October 4, 2010

A common mantra in green marketing is that if you want the masses to buy your product, focus your messaging on more traditional attributes such as price, quality or service.  A product’s “greenness” is likely secondary for many mainstream consumers. For green marketers then, the holy grail may be to offer a product that is competitive on dimensions both traditional and eco-friendly.  This would result in the greatest number of products sold and greatest impact on the environment.

But, things are not always that simple.  Consider the scenario when an innovative green product spurs new demand across an entire product category, rather than just replaces the existing generation of products in market. Is the individual product still green if the aggregate impact of the category is greater than what it replaced? 

Take, for example, household lighting.  Most of us are aware that switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs can result in a dramatic reduction in energy use.  But, overall adoption has been relatively modest in comparison to the potential market, likely due to the premium price commanded for the bulbs. 

Today, an even newer generation of lighting technology is on the commercial horizon.  Solid state lighting, described as a “souped up” version of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are commonly used today to illuminate electronic displays on alarm clocks and audio equipment, promises to provide lighting at a fraction of the energy used by today’s bulbs.  (“Not Such a Bright Idea”, The Economist, August 26, 2010)  Mass adoption of such technology could have significant implications for the environment given that 6.5% of the world’s energy is used for illumination.

In many ways, we should celebrate such technology fixes given their benefits to the environment.  For marketers, solid state lighting clearly has the potential to be one of those “holy grail products”. Yet, green products such as solid state lighting also present a paradox in that their adoption in mass might actually be detrimental to the environment. How could this be the case?  Well, according to J Y Tsao and colleagues at the Sandia National Laboratory, cheaper lighting that sips energy will likely increase overall demand and uses for light, and with it, overall energy consumption.  (J Y Tsao, et. al., “Solid-State Lighting: An Energy-Economics Perspective”, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, August 19, 2010)

The rationale? Today, Tsao et. al., contends that consumers underconsume indoor light – with current fixtures providing 1/10th of the illumination as ambient outdoor light on cloudy days and 1/60th of ambient outdoor light on sunny ones.  Tsao rationalizes that there is plenty of room to consume more – including in new ways that have yet to be thought of.

As evidence, Tsao et. al., models historical lighting use and adoption rates for new technologies – from gas lanterns to fluorescent bulbs – and extrapolates forward demand based on the amount of light produced (measured in lumens) and cost per lumen.

Historic trends clearly indicate that consumer demand greatly increased when cost dropped and other attributes – such as faster turn on/off and greater cleanliness – expanded lighting uses.  Extrapolating into the future, Tsao et. al., predicts that with solid state lighting, demand has the potential to increase10x by 2030 and with it, perhaps a 2x increase in energy use.  How paradoxical. 

It is important to note that the green product paradox is not isolated to LED lighting.  Increased demand for electric cars, for example, could result in a similar dilemma if the added electricity load needed to power the vehicles is generated using higher polluting coal.

As such, the green product paradox presents quite the challenge for a marketer.  For individual companies, such products can be both profitable and (at least appear) socially responsible.   It is only by looking at the forest from the trees – and perhaps a little into the future – does it become apparent that, in aggregate, such products may, paradoxically, have a negative impact.

A sustainable brand might try itself to mitigate any impact that its products may have.  But, this will only have broad impact if it ultimately compels competitors to follow suit.  Given this, marketers should recognize that a solution to the paradox may not lie within an individual company’s grasp.  Alternatively, it may take an industry consortium to make the necessary product changes or evolve consumer expectations.  Or, it may take collaboration across industries to have lasting impact.  In both examples cited above, a shift to lower-polluting sources for energy generation would mitigate an increase in demand for both products.

Overall, the green product paradox presents a difficult challenge for green marketers.  Doing good for the planet may not always be as a simple as motivating purchase of greener goods.  In some cases, it just might be too much of a good thing.


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