Growing Business Opportunities in Home Lighting, Heating

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

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

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

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

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.

Consumer Misperceptions Regarding Energy Efficiency

A recent survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that consumers are misinformed about how best to realize energy savings.  Marketers have the opportunity to make a significant impact on energy use by filling in knowledge gaps, correcting misperceptions and helping consumers prioritize actions that generate the greatest impact.  (Attari et. al., “Public Perceptions of Energy Consumption and Savings” August 2010)

As Attari et. al. point out, consumers can typically realize greater energy savings through structural improvements in energy efficiency (e.g., switching to fluorescent light bulbs) than from behavior changes that curtail energy use (e.g., turning off lights).  Yet, more than half of survey participants held the mistaken view that behavior changes such as turning lights off (nearly 20%) or reducing driving/biking/taking public transportation (15%) were likely the most effective way to reduce energy.  By contrast, only 12% of participants pointed to a structural change such as use of efficient light bulbs (4%) or appliances (3%).

Attari et. al., also explored consumer perceptions regarding the relative potential for energy savings through behavior changes or structural improvements in low and high energy intensive devices (e.g., heaters), appliances (e.g., cloth dryers) or activities (e.g., washing clothes at a lower temperature).  Interestingly, survey participants systematically underestimated the energy use and savings potential from energy-intensive options – with actual energy use or savings potential nearly 3x consumer estimates.  With little knowledge or reference points to make an informed decision, participants seemed to rely on heuristics like “anchoring” to make educated guesses regarding the impact of appliances and devices relative to a more familiar one, the 100 watt bulb. 

Such survey results should not come as too much of a surprise to most utility marketers, as consumers have traditionally lacked a detailed understanding of their energy bill and options for mitigating it. 

For marketers, such a knowledge gap provides a clear opportunity to engage consumers across new dimensions by:

Providing more details regarding household energy use: Consumers would take more action if they better understood the impact that each appliance, device and activity had on their aggregate bill.  While smart meter deployments make providing this level of transparency a snap, marketers may be able to improvise by providing likely usage patterns extrapolated from consumers with similar historic consumption patterns or surveys.

Leveraging more relevant heuristics: Marketers should focus on dollars rather than kilowatt hours of energy saved.  Money is more easily understood by consumers, especially when comparing products and product investments across categories.  For more significant investments, provide a personal return on investment or payback period to facilitate consumer decisions.

Benchmarking individual energy use against the community: Whenever possible, utilities should provide comparative data regarding personal energy use relative to the average in a community.  Such social marketing may provide an added level of urgency to act for consumers who use more energy than their neighbor (though marketers must take care in their messaging so as not to promote added energy usage by those already using less than the average).

Partnering to extend reach: Utilities should partner with others also interested in selling more efficient appliances and devices including retailers and OEMs, as well as those that interact with consumers at key trigger points for purchase such as real estate brokers, mortgage brokers and contractors. Such arrangements are mutually advantageous and can greatly extend reach and amplify messaging in market.

Green Brand Leadership: a Fish Story

The customer is always right – so goes the mantra of every sales rep from time immemorial. But, as we know, what customers want may not be best for the planet. For some brands, this presents a dilemma: how do you satisfy consumer needs while remaining eco-responsible?

The dilemma can be quite daunting for a brand, especially if the eco-impact is caused by lifestyle choices consumers are long accustomed to. This challenge is only compounded when consumers are not yet aware that their very actions are having a detrimental effect – as no brand wants to be the bearer of bad news. Or, perhaps more challenging still, brands may find that the very behaviors and rituals that help define a brand itself turn out to perpetuate the very actions that are having a negative impact.

Whose responsibility is it to promote more sustainable consumer behaviors?

Many brands would say, it is the role of governments to regulate – and if they don’t, a corporate entity is not accountable for their failure to act. Others would say that it should be left to the discerning buyer. Should a brand itself take the lead? Some may argue yes. It is a demonstration of brand leadership, they say.

But, being out ahead of one’s customers may serve brands well only when their customers expect them to do so. Staking out a leadership position appeals to customers that want to know that they are doing good through the choices that they make.

Others may argue no. Brands sell products, not morality they might say. Worse, eco-responsible messaging may be antithetical to the experience a brand is trying to create. It is hard to enjoy pleasures guilt-free if one is constantly reminded of the impact that one is having on the planet.

But, regardless of where one nets out on this issue, one thing is clear: today, brands are increasingly left with little choice but to act – or react – whether or not their actions directly influence customer purchase decisions. Advocacy groups as well as individuals are leveraging the power of the media (and social media) to broadcast and amplify their voices to sway popular opinion.

Whether viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership or take a defensive stance, it is likely that more and more brands will have to make such choices.

One example of such tension between brands and eco-decisions recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine article by Paul Greenberg, “Tuna’s End: The Fate of the Bluefin, the Oceans and Us.” (June 27, 2010), As Greenberg writes, Nobu, the internationally acclaimed sushi restaurant chain, faces a decision today over the selection of seafood that it serves.

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna – a prized fish for sushi and sashimi – is now endangered. Continued commercial fishing may push it to extinction. Further, the timing of the BP oil spill in the Gulf likely exacerbated the situation by polluting one of two known breeding grounds in the Atlantic for these fish right as mating season was to begin.

Today, Greenpeace is pressuring Nobu – in large measure because it is a category leader – to no longer serve Bluefin to its patrons. Nobu has resisted. Nobu co-owner Richie Notar noted, “The Japanese have relied on tuna and other bounties of the sea as part of their culture and history for centuries. We are absolutely appreciative of your goals and efforts within your cause, but it goes far beyond just saying that we can just taken what all of a sudden has been declared an “endangered” species off the menu. It has to do with custom, heritage and behavior.”

Arguably, Nobu’s brand identity emanates from a careful balance of adherence to the tradition and ritual of sushi – its creation, its presentation, its consumption – and hip appeal: swanky ambiance, innovative food creations and celebrity ownership. Out of balance, the brand does not deliver on the experience consumers have come to expect.

With this balance in mind, Nobu has tried to stake out a middle ground by updating its menu with the following message: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative”

Such a simple message informs patrons of the issue and then let’s each consumer make their own choice. Additionally, such phrasing invites a dialogue between the patron and server regarding food substitutes, though it is unclear as to how many patrons would be inclined to do so.

What Nobu has missed, however, is an opportunity to leverage this situation to evolve its brand appeal – keeping the balance between tradition and hip appeal while elevating each to the next level.

Nobu could find an alternative to Bluefin tuna and not jeopardize the brand, but arguably reinforce consumer perception of Nobu as hip and trendy. Greenberg asserts that what Nobu needs is a new substitute for tuna. As part of his research, he went searching for a Bluefin substitute and may have found one in a fish known as kahala. Arguably, Nobu is missing an opportunity to be one of the first to introduce kahala across its menus, reinforcing its trendy image.

Ironically, by introducing such a substitute, Nobu would not be breaking with tradition, but rather, returning to it, as Bluefin was not widely popular in sushi until just 30 years ago. It was nowhere to be found in sushi before 170 years ago.

Thus, shifting away from Bluefin and offering consumers a tasty substitute could actually enhance Nobu’s reputation for seeding new trends while maintaining close adherence to the tradition of sushi.

In this case, what is good for the brand may actually be good for the planet.