Just the other day, I was looking at a box of breakfast cereal. The largest lettering on the box were the three words naming the cereal: Frosted Shredded Wheat. Next in prominence came the tag line: “Contains 6 g. of fiber per serving.”
You’re probably thinking, “so what?” Manufacturers of processed food make claims like this so frequently that we’ve all gotten used to them.
But it is actually remarkable that marketers have concluded that the best way to sell cereal is by announcing how many grams of fiber it contains. After all, the manufacturer isn’t claiming that the cereal is delicious — just that it contains the dietary cousin of sawdust.
Notice something else about this claim: it includes the abbreviation “g.” Evidently the marketers feel confident that supermarket shoppers — the same people who buy oregano and chocolate by the ounce — know that “g.” stands for “gram.” That’s good. It’s evidence that American buyers of breakfast cereal aren’t fazed by the metric system. (Could this mean that consumers will soon be comfortable with joules?)
To me, this tag line — “Contains 6 g. of fiber per serving” — seems doomed to failure. But clearly, I have no background in marketing. In spite of my opinion, it is probable that this tag line is successfully moving a lot of cereal.
A window into the American soul
For some strange reason, when consumers go shopping for breakfast cereal, they apparently care more about technical specifications (measured in grams, even) than they care about flavor or delight. But when the same consumers go shopping for a new home, most couldn’t care less about technical specifications. All they want to see is a three-car garage and a Jacuzzi tub.
What’s going on here?
Frustrated home performance contractors often recount a…
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Ratings are too Obscure and WAY too many numbers
If you want to sell efficient homes tell people what their estimated monthly costs will be.
People should glaze over with all those numbers - it's just too much. Most people don't want to learn how to determine how efficient a house is, they want to know if it will save them money.
Money matters, and if the house cost $100 a month more in mortgage payments but save them $200 in utility bills that matters.
The flip side is: The house has to be what the buyer is looking for, and at the end of the day, you have to love the house you are in, so if it cost more to run the place but you love it, people will buy the house they love more. Bills be damned - to a point.
The real trick is to make houses people want that are also not energy hogs. People will sacrifice some things for a greener world but most people will only go so far with that, so the trick is no sacrifice but still be green... then you have a winning combination.
Martin, I think this is a very important topic - really more important than the minutiae that we obsess about here. We are not effectively reaching the general population. My contractor who now reads GBA and told me about your backyard tape test still builds every house (except mine) with 2 x 4 walls insulated with fiberglass batts? What the h£^^?
So I think asking the question as you have, is a good start.
Speaking as a homeowner who
Speaking as a homeowner who gets a little dizzy reading all the different numbers professionals use to create a high performance building (HERS, ASHRAE, SHGC, VT, R value, etc), I think what homeowners need is a vision of what all this could mean for them. "80% of customers say comfort is their primary issue" but what does that mean? Comfort is a very subjective word. For me, comfort sometimes means having my house paid off in ten years versus thirty because then I have less to worry about if we lose an income. Sometimes comfort is maintaining "passive survivability" during a disaster. Sometimes it is feeling proud of my home and that it is in keeping with my values.
This all comes down to marketing. If Price Chopper was all by itself talking to each customer about 6 grams of fiber per serving in its Frosted Shredded Wheat, they would be slamming their heads against the wall too. But they are not alone, they have several multi-national food corporations on their side with huge ad campaigns "educating" the public on the importance of fiber just to sell cereal. Without my paying attention to such things, I have a sense what fiber does for me simply because of the command advertising has on the national conversation.
My point is, I don't think the public cares more about 6 grams of fiber than they care about energy efficiency. I think the green building community just does not have the resources to convey the importance of green building in a way that taps into what the public does not know they want. Most people don't know what is even possible so how could they want it? With our houses built upon what amounts to as life support (water and energy going in, waste going out), why would anyone expect their houses to maintain temperatures during an ice storm that knocks out the power for two weeks? With the cost of construction and real estate, why would anyone think it was possible to pay their mortgage faster than 30 years with a building that meets their needs while reducing costs?
If a company with a big ad budget wanted to sell a lot of something, they would not give up because polling showed most customers don't care about their product. Instead, they would communicate a vision that shows consumers that the product is just what they are looking for and did not even know it yet.
What is the possibility of green building in people's/businesses lives? How can their lives be different?
Response to Lucy Foxworth
I was once a builder, so I understand why your builder still builds houses with 2x4 walls insulated with fiberglass batts. Builders compete for business in hopes of making a living. Most builders try to comply with local regulations, of course. Needless to say, it is still legal to build a house with 2x4 walls and fiberglass batts in many areas of the U.S.
Some progressive builders try to stand out by differentiating their work from their competitors, perhaps by emphasizing that their homes are more energy-efficient, or green, or better built, than their competitors. This works better in some markets than others. It works especially well in towns with a university or in upper-income neighborhoods. Not all builders find success with that approach, however.
If our country decides that we don't want to build any more homes with 2x4 walls and fiberglass batts, we need to level the playing field for all builders by establishing regulations that make it illegal to build homes with 2x4 walls and fiberglass batts.
Response to Leah Marshquist
You wrote, "This all comes down to marketing. ... I think the green building community just does not have the resources to convey the importance of green building in a way that taps into what the public does not know they want. Most people don't know what is even possible so how could they want it?"
It's possible that you are right -- that all we need is better marketing. However, our country has lots of big builders who want to move houses, and many of these builders have enormous advertising budgets. If the problem I describe were easily solved by developing slicker ads, I think it might have happened by now.
However, as I pointed out in the article, I'm not a marketing expert, so you might be right on that point.
Comfort vs Specs
I see this in a different light.
The US industrial food business is successfully marketing cereals by their technical features because they've now conquered taste (the equivalent of comfort, by this analogy). Technical features are all that are left to boast about, since the average shopper can pick any box off the shelf and be confident its flavor profile has been carefully engineered to taste great, within a certain variety of genres.
If you doubted that the cereal would meet the most basic thing we want from food (it should taste good), you wouldn't care about an obscure feature like fiber content. That's obviously no longer the case in typical supermarket engineered cereal.
Houses, however, often don't even meet the most basic level of technical function. Typical houses are often too cold and too hot, they leak water in mysterious places, they require constant investment to keep them from falling apart, so who has time to worry about "green" or how much it will cost you monthly in utility costs?
That's a second order detail that you only care about when you are confident the very basics will be satisfied. It's really a measure of just how far there is to go in building high quality houses in the US, you can't expect people to care about the little things until you've proved to them that you've solved the basics...
Response to Jesse Thompson
So, the manufacturers of frosted shredded wheat have mastered food preparation? Boxed breakfast cereal tastes great?
Dude, you have to get out more. Either that, or you should stop by my house for breakfast some time.
True, but I don't see big
True, but I don't see big builders buying the ad space the industrial food system occupies nor do I see them using that ad space to communicate the value of HERS ratings the way fiber is explained to the public.
I am not a marketing expert either but I understand enough to know that it is all fabricated. Right now, big builders are promoting huge, spacious houses with granite countertops and stainless appliances . Somewhere, a ways back, that desire was created. In the 80s, small, sleek sports cars were coveted and then came along the SUV. Big and awkward, it was marketing that made people want them. I don't think slicker ads are the solution to communicating green building but instead, a holistic approach to how we talk about design to the general public.
Rhode Island School of Design is now promoting STEM to STEAM. STEM being Science, Engineering, Math which is currently promoted and funded in the public school curriculum and RISD is proposing STEAM with Art and design at the center of it all. There is a lot of STEM discussed on this website but I wonder if STEAM were more a part of the discussion if that would help people make meaning out of all the numbers and strategies and abbreviations that go into creating a high performance building. And in so doing, tap into the same desires that govern decisions in buying cars, houses and frosted shredded wheat.
Currently, I am designing an attached greenhouse. If I took a STEM only approach, I would create something like what Virginia Tech physics professor David Roper created on a YMCA campus. http://www.roperld.com/science/ymcasolargreenhouse.htm It is amazing! Reading about all the specs and the science that went into it is quite impressive but I don't know that it captures the heart of what is possible with this technology and neither do a lot of experimental greenhouses. They are inspiring in what they achieve but there is something missing that I think keeps a lot of people from adopting it themselves; I would argue what is missing is art and design. Art and design are what helps us (the general public) make sense of it all. It is what captures the imagination and makes us care because it makes us feel something. Something that is not explained with a HERS calculation.
I have been researching greenhouse energy-saving design strategies for about seven years. And in that time, I was always thinking about what the experience of the space would be like using these strategies -how it would make me feel. At the same time, I became more and more aware of how costly this project would be so I kept designing in added value. The result, as it stands now (budget may change that) is a greenhouse (facing south, of course) with raised beds creating a cold sink, that lets the coldest air slip out of harms way of the fruit trees' roots while also making a sunken living space of a sort. An extra wide aisle allows potted fruit trees on wheels to be moved around and the raised beds lining the aisle have benches that fold down from the sides. The potted fruit trees have table tops that can be added to create a dining room table that can seat between 4 and 22 people. This allows me to live in a smallish house that lacks a dining room, to having one the few times a year I need it (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) while not heating that space the way I heat my house. The heating system I will use for the greenhouse is a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System that is a phase change system (you can read more about that on David Roper's site). This design would not be possible without art and design at the core of all the STEM research I put into this. When I tell people about the project, I don't capture them by telling them about the SHCS or the SHGC of the windows we are using or the R value of the structure. I capture their imaginations by telling them how I look forward to having dinner parties under a pomegranate tree canopy with the aroma of orange tree blossoms in the air, or retreating under an arbor of Dragon Fruit vines or basking in the sunlight in January with 4 feet of snow outside. I think perhaps we need to talk more about the experience of living or working in a green building to help people imagine something beyond the status quo.
What's needed is a simpler
What's needed is a simpler grading system, one that takes into account the fact that both men and women are involved in purchasing homes. Men (some men, anyway) get into arcane stuff like 0.6ach50 and figuring out a HERS index figure. For the most part, women do not. Both sexes, however, understand comfort. And cozy. And snug. And both sexes go to school, where they learn what an A is, or a B, or an F. Suppose there was something called the Snug Index. To get an A+ on the Snug Index, a house would have to be damn good, with excellent insulation and air infiltration figures, exactly defined. And the levels would go down from there: A, B+, B, B-, C+, etc. Those are grades that people understand instinctively, and they are grades that unleash the natural competitiveness in the American psyche. Until you get people bragging about their new home's energy performance level, green builders will forever occupy a specialized niche. OK, back into my shell.
Just because back-woods hippies don't want to believe it doesn't make it true :)
I don't eat packaged breakfast cereal either, but I'm not going to deny that the huge amounts of capital that has been spent in multi-million dollar labs to carefully target basic human taste pleasures isn't working, even if nutrition or subtlety of flavor wasn't on their feature list.
There has been tons written on this subject lately: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html
"Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”"
“The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”
defense of consumers
While I love this website, I do despise the "Blame the Consumer" attitude many commentators have. Instead of attacking the consumers how about taking a sharp eye to the industry itself? I can think of a few issues right off the bat.
1. Reliance on technical jargons that don't translate. Yes the breakfast cereal uses "Grams". But most of use learned something about grams in high school. Do you really expect an average consumer understand what HERS, VOC, ERV, ACH, VRF, GWP, XPS, EPS etc… stand for?
2. Overload of "Green". When every product is "Green" in is next to impossible for the average consumer to understand the difference between the products. Look at the debate between dense pack Cellulous, spider fiberglass and batt fiberglass. Each insulation has claims to be "green", each has an R-Value 3.4-4.0. If a consumer is looking at two equal house except one has dense pack cellulous and one has Fiberglass Batts there is going to be a substantial cost to the cellulous. The average professional doesn't understand that there is a significant performance difference in the real world. Yet you expect a consumer to understand the difference?
3. Economy's of scale: How often do we see on the web site that "it only cost 6% for a specific upgraded product (Insulation, Windows, VRF etc…). 6% is 18 cents more on a $3 breakfast cereal. I don't mind paying that for a healthier cereal. But it's $18,000 grand more on a $300,000 dollar house. For most people $18,000 grand would be bitter pill to swallow.
4. Unrealistic results: Consumers are inundated with exaggerated benefits and savings. From outright fraud (insulating paint) to over exaggeration (Ground Source Heat Pumps for example) consumers have been burned by the industry. Take fluorescent or LED lights. Early adaptors bought into these lights and felt burned when they got poor light level and unreal colors. Are the newer lights better? Sure, but you have to pay through the nose for a dimmable light. And god forbid if you $50 light bulb burns out after a few weeks instead of the promised years of operation.
Again this is a great website to shift through many of these issues. But not everyone has spent the time surfing through GBA's website.
Response to Frank R.
I regret if my article gave the impression that it makes sense to bombard home buyers with blower-door numbers and HERS numbers. It doesn't. It's perfectly clear to me why boring home buyers with this type of technical information is a fast track to frustration -- for all concerned.
I agree with you, for the most part. I'm not shy about highlighting greenwashing, and I have no illusions about energy-efficient homes. I've been plodding along in this field -- a backwater, if you will -- for decades, well aware that builders interested in superinsulation make up a small minority of builders, with little hope of achieving market dominance.
With this blog, which is light-hearted and intended to be humorous, I'm highlighting the fact that consumers don't care about the obsessions of energy nerds. So basically I'm making fun of myself. We continue to obsess about small things, but no one cares.
You are also absolutely right when you point out that the average home buyer doesn't want to spend $18,000 more for energy-efficient features. In many cases, much-vaunted energy features don't pencil out when it comes to cost-effectiveness. When I have the opportunity to point that fact out, I do so (much to the displeasure of the solar thermal industry, I might add).
When it comes to exaggerated energy claims that don't pan out, I also agree completely. Unless a green builder has monitored completed homes for several years, he or she shouldn't be making energy claims.
Although this is a light-hearted story about breakfast cereal marketing, I welcome any comments from readers who have suggestions about ways to market green homes.
Response to Jesse Thompson
You mean that frosted shredded wheat has been "optimized"? I had no idea.
It almost makes me want to taste some.
Perhaps things would change if appraisers starting incorporating predicted $/year of heating/cooling costs into the house value and the bank starting talking about monthly "mortgage + heating/cooling" costs for the specific house.
Cold cereal was originally...
...marketed as a method for reducing the prevalence of adolescent masturbation (really!).
Clearly that marketing approach for the product has long since lost it's relevance, and even if they wanted to, the FTC would now require proof of efficacy when making those claims (which could be tough, given the amount of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. :-) )
So they've had to re-work the marketing campaign as the market expanded & evolved. That's possible with housing too.
It may be difficult but not impossible to market high-performance building envelopes on the comfort merits alone. In a demonstration house with a code min wall sections with code-min windows, and another wall section with U0.20 windows and 1.5-2x the whole-wall R the comfort difference would be pretty obvious to all but the least sensitive folks on a +25For cooler day. When given realistic ranges of what the upcharge is for the higher-performance envelopes, compared to the upcharge for more nicely appointed kitchens/baths there would be a number of home buyers who would opt for the comfort over the luxury kitchen & bath, as well as those who would be willing to pay the upcharge for both.
It's also easy to point out in such a demonstration that the room temperature is the same- it's the same room, and that it's the building more than the mechanical systems that are providing the true comfort. HVAC has clearly been oversold as the driver of comfort. With the possible exception of radiant floors & lo-temp panel radiators in code-min houses, the mechanical systems may deliver the temperature, but is a second-order factor on how comfortable the room actually feels (at any temperature.)
And that's without getting into the weeds on the NPV of future energy savings and IRR of the initial investment bla bla that only the math nerds, carbon counters, & accountants get excited about. The average home buyer is far better able to relate to something that they can see, feel, & touch (like the polished granite counters, or radiant floors, or high-R walls/windows on cold day) than the numbers on the spreadsheet.
Defense of Consumers
Sorry, I think my e-mail was rougher than is should have been. As I stated I am a big fan of this web site. Mainly because your articles are far more honest and hypocrisy free.
From a personal standpoint we our looking to move out of our 1930's home and we are look to build. Ideally we would love to build a custom home, but we cant afford custom at our price point. When I look at the local larger developers in our area its shocking how poorly they are building the houses. As someone who works in the industry (Commercial Mechanical HVAC engineer) its easy for me to see the lousy construction standards. Even most of the "Green Homes" are not that good. Part of the problem is that my area of the country (buffalo NY) is behind the times in construction standards, even on the commercial side. Most of the local builders wouldn't even know where to start to build a energy efficient house. Those that do put PV panels and GSHP ahead of extra insulation and tri pane windows and call it green. I have yet to see one local developer look at tripane windows. In fairness to those developers, I am guessing its easier to sell flashy green features than boring insulation. But it is depressing to see whats on the market.
Re: If Only Green Homes Could Be Sold Like Breakfast Cereal
Liked the article. As a new homeowner, I'm definitely looking at comfort, but also what it costs to stay that way. Case in Point: During the last heat wave in the Boston area two weeks ago, I couldn't keep my house below 75 degrees with the central a/c cranking away and t-stat set to 72. My electric bill came to $223.57 - ouch! So, yes, I'm also looking at numbers, and I now realize how much insulation my '30's-era house doesn't have. So, I'm getting insulation, and I hope to save more money in my wallet and also stay comfortable. If more people realized how expensive it is to stay comfy with inferior insulation, they'd think twice.--Matt Chao
Second response to Frank R.
You wrote, "Most of the local builders wouldn't even know where to start to build a energy efficient house. Those that do put PV panels and GSHP ahead of extra insulation and triple-pane windows and call it green."
You have identified a key problem with marketing green homes. It's hard to market the advantages of smaller homes that have low-rates of air leakage. Most home buyers prefer larger homes; and if they agree to pay extra for "green" features, they want to invest in something they can point to, like a ground-source heat pump, instead of something invisible, like a low rate of air leakage.
Response to Matthew Chao
I'm glad that you are seeking ways to reduce your air conditioning bill by improving your thermal envelope -- instead of by buying more equipment.
More insulation may or may not be the best approach. You should also look at shading your windows -- especially west-facing windows -- and reducing air leakage through your walls, ceilings, and foundation. If you have any ductwork in your attic or crawl space, make sure that duct seams are sealed and your ducts are well insulated.
Marketing High Performance Homes
I think green homes could indeed be marketed and sold like breakfast cereal, but it is just that it is not being done. Assuming that this type of housing has attractive attributes, it is marketable, but marketing takes effort, skill, and time to work. It is a most common mistake to think that just because a new product offers some advantage or improvement, it will sell. The old adage, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is blissfully naïve.
I don’t think there is any reason to despair just because the high performance building movement has not caught fire in the mass marketing of housing. Breakfast cereals have been building a market for a long, long time. High performance housing is brand new. Not only is it new, but it is a gigantic concept compared to the first breakfast cereal.
I see this type or housing offering the enhancement of three different objectives:
1) Energy efficiency
All three are completely different. The market has to be informed as to the reason why enhancement of these three factors matters. The answer is not obvious. Probably what the market relates to most is energy efficiency. But this leads right to the issues of how much insulation to use—the so-called “sweet spot.” The market wants to know if it pays to insulate more than typical. If you tell them it does, they wonder why it is so uncommon. And they wonder why most builders discourage the idea of better insulation values. After all, builders should know best.
All prospective high performance house buyers have been told that houses can be made too tight. This causes them to question any performance marketing claim that emphasizes how tight a high performance house is. The question needs a good answer that gets right to the point.
As to comfort, everybody wants it, but they do not readily grasp why they need more of it. I doubt that many people realize how comfort fits into the tradeoff between energy use and energy efficiency. No one of these three factors alone is going to be sufficient to market high performance housing. It is going to take all three of them, and probably even more.
Another consumer chimes in
In the prehistory of the 1970s, Americans wanted "big, comfortable" cars and submitted to the Detroit "fact" that their big, honkin vehicle would have to be replaced due to rust-out and mechanical death every 70,000 miles ....
And then, along came little cars from Japan that A) didnn't rust out B) lasted well over 100,000 miles and C) were cheap to maintain and C-2) cheap to drive.and C-3) also cheaper to buy!
It would be a gross oversimplification to say that Detroit's decaying remains are solely due to the arrival of smaller, more efficient, more durable vehicles. But it also wouldn't be a terrible stretch of fact to say that a glossy picture and big bux are not going to sell green homes right now.
Notice that fiber claim on the cereal box -- it doesn't say anything about "good tasting"; it gives a fact. Because we all know what fiber does for our body, that fact helps sales and implies the cereal is better than the others.
My point, at last: if GBA homebuilders can turn out houses that provide good comfort (like the Buicks and Oldsmobiles did) and use less gas (like the Hondas and Toyotas did) and are cheaper and easier to maintain, and last longer .... a critical mass of buyers will at some point be reached.
And THEN a big marketer or two can throw up big ad campaigns that will have some real results. And people will want "one of those," just cuz it's easier to buy green.
Yes, my analogy is lame, but the principles beneath it aren't. Today, GBA builders are in the vanguard of a development which is headed for inevitable success ... at some point ahead. Meanwhile, local movements like the large multi-family projects in Atlanta testing for Earth Craft, and the Habitat for Humanity projects that espouse energy efficiency and certifications are the absolute best advertising you've got .... if the design and construction of those projects achieve high quality. You'll have to check with Carl Curmudgeon on that one ...
Admittedly, my restless nature means I'm not the right person to be reminding others to be patient, but I think it's important to keep in mind that it took 12,000 years for the cultivation of grain to be transformed into ready-made breakfast cereal. And keep in mind, cereal was a very niche product when it was first introduced. If somebody had the resources to hire the best Madison Ave. ad agencies to convince the average consumer he wanted/needed a green home, there would be much bigger market for them, just like the switch from family cars to SUVs. Alternatively, when energy is a lot more expensive than it is now, people will care much more about efficiency. It took a river catching fire to spark interest the Clean Water Act.
I look at it this way:
Cereal manufacturers are taking for granted people know how a specific cereal tastes. So they have moved on to marketing nutritional benefits.
My guess is their market research has told them that overall cereal eaters, whether it be for their brand/product or others, are consuming the product for health reasons more than any other reason. Doctors, ranging from Dr. Oz to their own personal physician, have been advocating for more fiber in most people's diets, due to a lack of it in other foods.
One other dynamic that may be in play here: Cereal manufacturers have to compete against generics. I haven't done the comparison, but it may be that the proprietary brand is trying to differentiate from the generic equivalent by boosting their fiber content.
They also have limited marketing space on their box. Maybe the manufacturers don't put "Greatest tasting cereal we've ever made!" because they know the consumer would respond with, "Yeah, we've heard that before" or "You're just saying that because you want to sell cereal".
Finally, I also don't know the regulatory requirements of cereal. Is a minimum amount of fiber required?
Just additional things to consider when trying to draw an analogy between cereal and green homes...
So how should green homes be marketed?
Not saying this is a great answer, but from a marketing perspective, it really depends on who the audience is.
For example, if I was marketing to a upper-middle class or upper class homeowner who is in the business world, I would accentuate the financial savings/ROI and back off the more emotional messaging of environmentalism.
On the flip side, if the buyer is involved in more passion-based endeavors (philanthropy, social causes, volunteering, etc.) then I would play up the emotional messages and mention the monetary savings once a rapport was developed.
Geographical issues should also be taken into consideration. Here in the Midwest, no one cares about water usage. In the Southwest, they very much care about it. Other factors would be: Is the new house going to be located near a noise producer (school, highway, airport, commercial district)?
So many things to contemplate. Those are just top of mind. And yes, I have a degree in marketing.
6g fiber = HERS 60
I disagree that HERS should be lumped in with all other confusing abbreviations. Consumers don't need to know how a home arrives at a HERS rating, they only need to know whether a home has one and that lower equals better. The fact that national mega builders are moving toward marketing a HERS rating and moving away from Energy Star, tells us all we need to know. They ARE the marketing geniuses (like cereal sellers) and their research must be telling them that a low HERS rating sells. Heck, even our friends in real estate are getting it and starting to include that information in their MLS listings. Many building science experts much smarter than me lament the rise of HERS because of its apparently inadequate ability to account for everything, but it clearly is the best thing we've got for mass consumption. Don’t fear the growing dominance of HERS ratings, market it!
It sounds to me from the initial musing that we need to market our selves better, and that people care more about comfort than energy efficiency. Thus, how do we market comfort? What does comfort look like? As Leah touched on, Isn't it a major problem that comfort might look completely different to different people? Lets face it, 6g of fiber is the same to everyone, but two people can't agree on a thermostat setting. Expanding on the line of thought, is it ethical to sell energy efficiency by extolling comfort, knowing we are just slipping the energy efficiency in through the back door?
Perhaps, but the devil can lie within. You want to know who has succesfully marketed comfort? Radiant floor installers. The ubiquitous naked baby smiling on the hardwood floor with pleasing, warm colored radiant tube sections pointing the way to happiness. I'd say over 75 % of the people who come throuh our door start off by saying "we want radiant floors". That is their image of comfort. It is downright difficult to explain to them that their house could be comfortable WITHOUT the radiant floors. In the end, many will insist on the radiant floors, even in the face of all the numbers and graphs showing them it might not be the most efficient solution to their space heating needs.
Another good example is infrared images used to market everyhing from spray foam to bubble wrap. People see the green and blue areas and think, "Ooh that must be a cold spot. I don't want THAT. How much money can I give you for your miracle product?!"
So, what does comfort look like? What is the cover photo on the glossy tri-fold pamphlet? What is the best font to tell you how wonderful it is? Is the word efficiency even on the box?
My 2 cents
HERS is probably the standard to get behind as a benchmark for comparison shopping by homebuyers. It's simple, it rates the single most significant environmental and economic benefit factor with no debatable fringe considerations, and most of all has a strong parallel in the EPA's MPG ratings for automobiles with which consumers have been familiar for decades.
The cereal was sold with the word "frosted," which ensures the sugar craving will be satisfied; 6 g. of fiber is probably only there to be an apparent health-equalizing benefit. The cereal manufacturers know what they're doing. It might distill down to this sort of industry mantra: Deliver taste indulgence for sure; offset guilt with something healthy if you can. We homebuilders could learn from that. Here's one: 3500 s.f. AMENITY+ HOUSE: HERS 75*. But wait, that's pretty close to a real world marketing message for new homes. The truth is, homes ARE sold like breakfast cereal! Indulgence sells; green offsets.
The other truth is lots of otherwise high performance homes get "frosted" to satisfy particular requests (indulgences?): a wall of glass for the view; a full surround shower; 100 s.f walk-in closet, 2nd refrigerator; etc. When the wrong thing gets maximized, the right thing gets compromised. Well optimized homes, on the other hand, aren't very frosted in the conventional sense. We need a big conversation about the real meaning comfort, personal indulgence, and amenity. We should try to raise the ante, and bring the discussion up to the top of Maslow's hierarchy, which is a place where there's a quality of life standard that defies our numbers, but should be our aspiration. In that place, we can sell indulgences too (equality, simplicity, security, freedom, peace), and forget the data.
*Like 6 g. of fiber, HERS 75 is not terribly impressive, but most consumers don't know that.
Response to Tedd Benson
I agree with your perceptive comment that the key word on the cereal box (from a marketing perspective) is "frosted." The customer wants the sugar, but feels guilty; hence the reference to fiber.
Can we learn how to market green homes?
Having also been trying to push the "wet noodle" of green building for many years, with only moderate success, I have come to the conclusion that we need work to bring up the building industry from the sub-standard level much of it wallows in. My belief is that if you follow energy codes (assuming they exist in your area, if not pick 2009 or 2012 IEC), comply with all manufacturers installation instructions (including grade 1 insulation, Manual J and D for HVAC, air barriers, etc), don't do stupid things in the design (lots of west facing windows in hot climates, ducts in unconditioned attics), and perform the work competently, you will have the core of a green building. The problem is that many buildings don't meet energy codes and manufacturer's installation requirements, and they are cookie cutter plans that do not take into account the sun and other climate conditions. We need to (somehow, and I don't know what exactly to do) explain to consumers what competence is. Most people look at the rooms, the counter tops, and fancy appliances, and aren't able to evaluate the quality of the workmanship behind the walls. I don't have an answer, but the problem seems pretty clear to me.
Response to Carl Seville
You're right that most new construction is substandard. In other words, there are still a few pebbles and rodent hairs in our box of breakfast cereal.
Until we can do a better job in the quality department, a concentration on marketing may be irrelevant.
my observation is that most builders start with a "build to code" approach and try to sell "up" to energy efficiency and find that approach doesn't work very well. Or they turn to some new technological development and claim that the SIPS/ICFs/Geothermal/whatever does the trick. Buckminster Fuller said "To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Just as the Toyota Prius has started to make the old gas engine model obsolete, the development of net zero & Passive House building will change the construction of housing, but it doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen by adding an inch of spray foam. People are looking for a paradigm change and knowledgeable builders can and are delivering this across the country. At a time when Builder Magazine and Professional Builder have put Passive House on their covers, the public is more than receptive for builders that understand and can build houses that incorporate these new standards.
"People are looking for a paradigm change"
Very few people. That's the problem. As Bob Irving rightly points out, there are plenty of builders across the country who are knowledgeable and motivated enough to want to do the right thing, but let's be realistic, on the consumer side it's still a minority interest. Sorry to be skeptical, but most people are looking for the maximum square feet for the money and a lot of them are actually turned off by environmental and economic benefits. Conspicuous consumption is still alive and well in the US, and they want the biggest McMansion they can afford with the biggest gas-guzzler sitting in the driveway - or in the heated three-car garage. High energy consumption is a feature, not a bug - it just demonstrates how wealthy they are. If you want to reduce the environmental impact of mass-market housing you can't rely on a motivated populace. Just as with cars and light bulbs, you're going to have to legislate it via some straightforward marker - like HERS.
Of course it's a minority
Of course it's a minority market, but it is strong and it is growing. The Passive House and the Net Zero is growing by leaps and bounds. Transformations in Massachusetts has subdivisions full of net zero houses; Bensonwood has a new Unity Homes prefab startup; Keiser Homes in Maine, Preferred Homes and Epoch Homes in NH are selling net zero modulars and on & on & on across the country. This is what a trend looks like.
Marketing High Performance
I agree with Bob Irving's comments about a growing market.
I don’t know how many people are actively seeking a paradigm change, but I sense that a greater number than ever are interested in something along the lines of superinsulated houses and enhanced energy efficiency. But they are bewildered by what is being offered, and are having a hard time crystalizing a plan of action. This segment may not include everybody, but it is a significant chunk of the population. Furthermore, I would say that this interested segment is pulling a lot harder than the marketing is pushing. So this is the fertile ground for marketing.
Not only is the marketing less than needed, but also, the market is encountering resistance from the status quo in the building industry that feels that pushing for greater excellence will drive up the price and reduce sales. This resistance takes the form of telling the market that extra insulation does not pay, and that it is bad to make a house too tight. These are the first two myths that have to be busted in marketing to this interested segment.
People here have mentioned large houses and small houses. It is not clear whether this interested market for energy efficient houses crosses the entire spectrum of house size or not. This would be a key factor to discover for purpose of this marketing. For instance, it might be found that the majority of this market prefers relatively small houses with an emphasis on architectural simplicity, space efficiency, and functionality.
But this marketing has to be just the right blend of features and incentives. Traditional houses are normally marketed as space function and architecture. Architecture is perhaps the biggest component. Energy efficiency is usually sold as an enhancement that works for any size and any architectural style. That was a loudly trumpeted desirable attribute of superinlulated houses when the concept was pioneered. It was contrasted with active and passive solar which tended to drive the appearance.
But superinsulation was deemed to be completely independent of style and appearance. However, that is not exactly true because superinsulation works best when combined with an architectural design that aids ventilation and heat distribution. Maybe embracing this truth is better than denying it. Maybe a more energy functional design is what gives an energy efficient house its marketing identity.
Effective Marketing v. Quality
I think we need to pay attention to the complex relationship between effective marketing and product quality as we parse the aptness of comparison between selling green homes and selling breakfast cereal. The question of whether the industrial food system is a worthy model from a marketing perspective is different--and yet can't be separated from--the question of whether the quality of its products is a worthy model.
I agree with Jesse the food system has conquered taste, but this doesn't mean that its products are high quality. To my mind, products that are loaded with added sugars, salts and fats and are linked to epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases are not high quality no matter how successfully they have been "optimized" for taste. The products sell because added sugars, salts, fats, etc. taste good (and the products are cheap), but they aren't quality--if by quality we mean something other than immediate gratification.
So what of the so-called "technical specifications" that are itemized on these food products? I agree with Tedd: the so-called technical specifications don't sell the cereal; they offset the potential guilt consumers feel about buying processed foods. These technical specifications are not enlightening and informative; they do not aid consumers in the quest for quality. Rather they are intended to distract consumers from the fact that what they are buying is of poor quality--even though it tastes good.
Now isn't this just nutrition-washing? If so, I don't think it's a marketing strategy we would want to emulate.
We are marketing the “green lifestyle experience”.
We are marketing the “green lifestyle experience”. It’s our equivalent of fiber and ‘frosting’. This may include the experience of the design/build process itself; when people see how things are designed and implemented and are actually involved in the process as a fun collaborative experience, they are more ‘comfortable’ with the experience related to the product, and less concerned with cost issues. This has been the case with a rainwater harvesting start-up business I have mentored for several years! (I mentor small businesses on how to be sustainable!)
And of course it's the experience of the finished residence. Customer lifestyle experience includes the ‘comfort’ ingredient you all mention. We strive to keep the focus on the benefits of the day-to-day "living experience” rather than the higher build costs. Living green benefits the environment every minute of everyday! If people see this as a contribution to the environment (which they in turn benefit from) it's like giving back to a non-profit, but giving that they themselves benefit from. It's always more compelling to give when you get something back :-)
We really need to get people hooked on living the green experience, rather than just seeing the up front expense with years to pay back, a pay back they may never experience!
This is a great post Martin, thank you and thank you all commentors.
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