Beyond the Bottom Line: Telling an Energy Efficiency Story without Incentives


In our industry—as in many others—we tend to divide our communications along a seemingly clear line: business-to-business and business-to-consumer. Or, “B2B and B2C.” We often try to motivate business decision-makers into energy efficiency using purely rational and business case-derived messages. We believe this is, at its core, a flawed approach.

Our argument? It’s all human connection. We are trying to change the way humans make decisions and behave relative to energy use, and humans make decisions in very complex ways that involve both rational and emotional elements.

As New York and other states move toward an environment where incentives can no longer be a driving force to stimulate energy efficiency, we need to start figuring out how to leverage motivations beyond the bottom line.

Understanding intrinsic motivations

In 2014, Brand Cool conducted a series of in-depth conversational interviews with apartment building owners who had taken on comprehensive energy retrofits through New York State’s incentive program. While there is no doubt that incentives currently provide a primary reason for participation, our goal was to understand the other, non-incentive based motivations for implementing energy efficiency upgrades. These are “intrinsic” motivations, because they may be sparked by the presence of an incentive, but the traction and momentum are not reliant on external monetary incentives.

From discussion came powerful insight

In contrast to most interview and survey techniques that ask people point blank about preferences, attitudes or motivations, we used a psychosocial approach that is based on the premise of having good conversations. For example, we’ve been asking people for years what would motivate them to take on energy efficiency retrofits, providing multiple-choice options. Most often, they’ve said “saving money,” so we activate money-saving messages and yet…we’re still not seeing significant conversion. We’ve tried every possible version of that message – it’s not working.

We paid attention to the particular stories, the anecdotes, and the order in which people talk about certain things. Then we identified themes and insights that seem particularly relevant and notable.

Intrinsic motivations

In the stories people were telling us, we were hearing a lot about the desire and need to have control – specifically about the fact that there are many variables we don’t have control over, such as rising costs of resources and energy, the risk of severe weather events and other external factors. intrinsic motivationsHaving control here relates to the notion of “autonomy” – the ability to have impact and influence over one’s environment. This cannot be underestimated, especially given how powerless many people feel in general.

The next theme we were hearing had to do with foresight. This was expressed in people talking about the need to act, to be ahead of the curve – a clear enjoyment and appreciation of being strategic. You will see this is closely related to control, and in fact all of these are closely interrelated, because there is no single element or motivator that is the primary factor.

The next theme is perhaps the most surprising. As an industry, we often have a pretty jaded view of property owners and managers – especially if you have been a renter or have experience working with those whose ethics are lacking. However, what we heard from these particular individuals surprised us – we heard a lot about care, and caretaking in how they saw their job, and how they relate with their professional value. This was expressed in their pride in providing people with savings and better quality operations, even if the tenants didn’t really know or have much to say about it. Even though it may seem otherwise, they feel pride in providing people with savings and better quality operations. Their sense of professional purpose is directly tied to the quality of housing and home experience they’re providing for people.

Finally, we have what we call a “triple win” – where the benefits of being environmentally friendly, saving money and having a higher quality building are often coexisting. This is a unique leverage point for us, as we think about how to design and communicate energy efficiency in ways that are compelling for our stakeholders.

triple win

What we believe is that these benefits or motivations should not exist as a hierarchy, such as “people really care most about the bottom line.” This is a common mistake especially in business-to-business communications. We tend to apply the rational actor model with a heavy hand, and it’s not effective. If people only made rational decisions, our impact would be far more widespread. In the energy space, we tend to ignore the emotional aspects of energy and energy-related decision-making.

These insights provide an opportunity to think more holistically about what motivates people to become active, involved and even “empowered” to participate in energy efficiency upgrades. There are a number of ways we can craft our messages to help speak to these intrinsic motivators:

  • Being smart, caring and competent – We know you are a smart businessperson, and you care about your tenants, your buildings, and your community.
  • Being stewards –You are responsible about your job, and we get that.
  • Committed to getting the job done – We know you work hard, and we are here to support/enable you.
  • Your efforts will pay off – The customer journey requires some energetic investment (but not too much).
  • You do not have to go this alone – We are here to support

As energy efficiency practitioners and communicators, we challenge you to think about how you would speak to your audiences if you couldn’t talk about money, if you couldn’t leverage incentives as a motivator. It’s an important exercise, and one that could yield much more effective communications as we seek to move the market forward at the fast pace it requires.