A new report from Shelton Group turns the orthodoxy about energy-efficiency marketing messaging on its head. “The tired old messaging about savings has lost its potency, if it ever had any to begin with,” the energy and environment marketing and research firm says in its Energy Pulse 2016 Special Report, “Playing the Planet Card, is it finally time to talk about the environment to promote residential energy efficiency?”

Instead, Shelton recommends revisiting environmental messaging. “It’s time for energy-efficiency messaging to get bigger. More emotional. More connected to what makes people proud of themselves,” the report authors say.

The firm polled 2,025 Americans across a representative sample of ages, gender, education, race and locations in August, as the U.S. presidential race entered its final lap.

Why savings messages don’t work

Energy-efficiency action has “flatlined” since 2010, Shelton says, with most Americans doing nothing to improve the efficiency of their homes in 2016. While people say they’re motivated by saving money, they only act on that impulse when times are tough—when money is tight or energy prices are skyrocketing, neither of which is currently happening.

I asked Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group, why the savings message doesn’t work. “It’s a message you can’t deliver on,” she said. “It still gets clicks, but it resonates hollow. People are like, ‘Yeah. I tried it and it doesn’t work.’”

Yet Americans don’t rate the environment highly on the list of reasons to invest in energy efficiency. So while it seems counterintuitive to use an environmental message, Shelton suggests there are two reasons to do so:

  1. The environment is a more inspirational message.
  2. The American mindset about the environment is shifting.

Environmental concern is growing

Shelton uncovered some startling facts about Americans’ changing opinions about the environment. Most people, regardless of who they are or where they live, believe human-caused climate change is real and want to do something about it.

“Concern for the environment has gone mainstream,” the report authors state.

In fact, in a mock presidential election conducted as part of the research in August, respondents overwhelmingly voted for a progressive environmental platform. The platforms were not tied to specific candidates. Surprisingly, support for renewable energy and concern for the environment transcended income, age, education and political affiliation. Red state, blue state, it didn’t matter.

Shelton’s conclusion: “No matter how your marketing target area shakes out demographically, environment-focused messaging can play to a receptive crowd.”

Lead with the heart, close with fact

Okay, so Americans care about the environment. How then to fashion marketing messaging to move them to act?

Couple information with inspiration, motivation and positive emotion, the report recommends. “Protecting the planet offers an inspirational angle that strictly personal benefits, like savings or comfort, can’t match.”

“Don’t drop the savings message altogether,” Shelton told me, “but use it as a closing tool, not a door opener.”

The firm advocates a one-two solution for energy-efficiency messaging:

1) Lead with the environment.

  • Tell stories that make homeowners feel like heroes or stars when they cut energy use.
  • Help people feel part of a greater whole.
  • Promote the idea of not wasting natural resources. “Waste not, want not. Don’t spoil the nest. Those are messages most Americans have grown up with and subscribe to whether they’re conservative or liberal,” Shelton told me.
  • Tap their natural instinct for collaboration.
  • Help people feel what a better environment would look like.
  • Use humor, affirmation and encouragement to keep the association positive.

2) Follow with energy savings facts to support their decision to act.

  • Frame energy efficiency as an investment with a return rather than as a cost-cutting action.

Testing the theory

Shelton said her firm had not yet tested these new ideas with its energy and built-environment clients. But she said the feedback she’s gotten so far has been “cautiously optimistic” to try it out and plans to do so in the coming quarters.

“Fifty-one percent of Americans feel anxious about the environment,” Shelton told me. “People want to do something in the face of that anxiety. When you do something, you’re a really good person, you’re a hero. Those are all wonderful messages that speak to my heart and make me want to take action.”