A new motivation for energy efficiency?

As we know there is widespread anger and frustration with the big six energy companies – for their pricing, profits and levels of customer service. Only 7 out of 10 of the public gave them a positive rating in a recent Populus survey, so introducing yourself to a new acquaintance by saying “I work for one of the big six energy companies” is now more likely to make them recoil in horror than saying you work for a bank (although it is still marginally better than working for a tobacco company or a payday lender).

The solution offered to those wanting to take a stand against the big six is to “vote with your feet” and switch suppliers. All well and good, but I wonder if there is another way in which people might be encouraged to take action. How about “Hit the big energy companies where it hurts – vote with your wallet and become more energy efficient?”

We know that “saving money on your bills” is a problematic benefit with which to promote energy efficiency– it’s not certain; bills don’t make it easy to notice the difference; it doesn’t necessarily result in more money in your pocket if prices go up; and by appealing to extrinsic rather than intrinsic values it doesn’t develop any real concern for climate change.

A message around “don’t give the energy companies any more than you have to” may be one that motivates some people to act on energy efficiency who have thus far been unmoved by the message of bill saving alone.

I think it may be a promising addition to energy efficiency messaging for three different reasons.

Firstly, it plays to the social norm. Most of us like to stay with the crowd and we can make that work in our favour. Installing measures may not mean people feel different to their neighbours if it is an expression of defiance against the big six, because everyone hates them!

Secondly, challenging the big boys has already been used effectively in a behaviour change intervention – albeit in preventing teenagers start smoking. The influential Truth project, which started in America and is now used in the UK in an adapted form, appeals to teenagers’ sense of rebellion by encouraging them to take on the tobacco industry which, according to the project, is trying to manipulate them, by not starting to smoke. In its first four years in America, Truth kept 450,000 young people from smoking saving $5.4 billion in health costs and denying the industry thousands of new customers.

Finally, psychologically we are more likely to act if we are given a reason (marketers know this as “the power of because”). I always encourage energy efficiency practitioners who are certain that a message around saving money on energy bills will work for their audience to give examples what that saved money might be used for – more presents for the kids at Christmas, a spa day, a football season ticket etc – as it gives people a tangible reason to act (rest assured I am mindful of the rebound effect here, more carbon hungry holiday flights wouldn’t be ideal!). So maybe the reason to act could be to get one back on the big six energy suppliers?

Of course, one fly in the ointment is that a lot of the funding for energy efficiency interventions is provided by the big six and, understandably, they are unlikely to be keen on such a critical message! However would they rather have one of their customers using less energy (and getting a kick out of it) or a customer who switches to another, smaller energy company?

I would be interested to hear what those working in energy efficiency make of this – is it a message worth testing with certain audiences?

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