What’s Off about Off the Grid


Sometimes we’re in so deep that we’re oblivious to what’s really happening around us. This limits our ability to engage with people in meaningful ways.

I’m constantly reminded of this simple truth when I hit the “zone”—That moment when I start talking about energy at a level most people can’t (or don’t want to) relate to. Now, let’s be clear. For me, being in the zone feels great. But for the audiences that don’t have a background similar to mine or share my passion, it’s painful. My colleagues and family have even perfected the eye roll and expression, “there she goes again,” in response to the “zone.” They have no idea what I’m talking about.

It’s safe to say that we’re all guilty of being in the zone from time to time. Given the complexity of the energy industry, it’s probably happening more than we’d like to admit. That’s because the words or phases we use to engage people are often out of context or mean something completely different than how we’re defining them.

To test this, the Brand Cool team selected one of the most used phrases right now in the energy industry and asked 100 people to tell us what it means. The first question, “What does “off the grid” mean to you?” provided us with an unaided view of what the saying means to them. Their answers are enlightening. Here’s just a few of the 70 responses we collected:

  • Being untraceable or nowhere to be found

  • Having no technological devices

  • Disconnected from civilization

  • Living off the land

  • Off the beaten path, off the radar and hard to find

  • No access to telecommunications

  • Operating without scrutiny

  • Living in the woods/rural area without access to basic services

  • Not seeing someone for days

  • Not accessible to people

  • Living without the internet or TV

  • Taking a vacation

  • Being in the middle of nowhere

  • Not having email

  • Having more dependency on wind, sun and hydro power

  • Excellent—like something that exceeds the norm

  • Being unknown to government

Only 30 percent of survey respondents associated “off the grid” with energy, either in being disconnected from power or using energy they generate. This indicates that marketers and energy providers could be off to a shaky start if they’re talking to people about things related to the grid because people aren’t connecting energy to it. Even more people–33 percent—described “off the grid” as not having internet access. This points to the continued blurring of what people might view as a basic necessity today, as well as how newer services are capturing a more prevalent position in our minds.

To understand if this gap still exists if we give people more context, we then asked the same 100 people an aided question: “What does ‘off the grid’ mean to you in terms of energy use?”  Again, their responses varied greatly.

  • Using too much energy

  • Not using any energy or very little

  • Lighting candles or finding alternate ways to fulfill needs

  • Being green

  • Not relying on energy

  • I’m bad–too much wasted energy

  • Super high energy use

  • Self sustaining

  • Not being covered by a big company like a utility and getting energy from a town

  • Harnessing nature to create energy

  • 100% solar

  • Unplugging everything

  • Not hooked up to a utility

  • Having no electricity

Our favorite response—echoed multiple times by respondents—was: “I honestly have no idea what that means. Sorry.” The fact that people are apologizing for not knowing what it means makes a strong case for making energy more human. People feel absolutely vulnerable when they don’t know what someone is talking about or why they should even care.

For energy providers, here’s one great reason to care: In our simple study, 27 percent said that being off the grid to them means that they’d have no need for a utility.

If we look at these responses from a human insights perspective, it’s clear that we need to do a better job communicating what new energy concepts will really mean to people. As the energy industry is busy figuring out how new technologies, infrastructures and policies will transform the utility business model, we need to encourage one another to step out of the zone, to explore how people feel about what we’re implementing, and to really understand—from their point of view—how it will impact their lives. We have much more to gain if we start the conversation from where they’re at mentally instead of where we think they are or should be.