Who Wants to Be Called “Retro”?

The way in which we frame clean technology is a determining factor for the success of the industry. Language guides action. By developing frames that inspire, engage emotions, and resonate strongly with widely-held concerns, we can catapult demand and increase our triple bottom-line.

David Fenton, from Fenton Communications, gave a compelling presentation on this topic to the Department of Energy in D.C. a few weeks ago.

Fenton spoke directly to the grantees of the DOE Energy Retrofit Ramp-Up program on how to develop compelling messages to motivate people to save energy.  If we are to encourage homeowners to take part in retrofit programs, we can start by using other words besides “retrofit.” Fenton stated:

Think of it. Would you like to be associated with something called RETRO? RETRO isn’t looking forward even if it FITS. Would you like to be retro? Would your kids like you to be retro? We’ve just activated a frame of looking backwards. Is that going to get people excited about borrowing money to save energy?

On the topic of energy efficiency, Fenton continued:

Efficiency. Does that refer to the guy on the assembly line who measures your output for the boss? Or the computer program that measures how many calls a telemarketer completes in an hour? Ok, it’s a beautiful concept to engineers, because it activates a different frame that has grown in their minds. But to most Americans, I submit it’s a cold, heartless, unemotional term that does not motivate.

As much as we’d like to think that consumers are going to make rational, logical decisions to invest more in the short-term for long-term savings, emotions and values are a stronger motivator for action.

In my own research, I tracked how plug-in vehicle technology support has changed within the industry. In 2003, the electric car was thought “dead.” Many factors contributed to its current resurgence, but framing played a very significant role.

Frames have two components. First, there is the diagnostic component – what is considered the problem? In 2003, the primary problem identified for electric vehicle technologies was “poor air quality.” As much as we’d like to think that air quality is strong enough to mobilize vast resources for technologies that use less oil, it just doesn’t resonate strongly enough on a mass scale.

As of 2008, we started to see the emergence of new diagnostic frames. Those who supported plug-in vehicles stopped talking about air quality and started talking about energy security, clean energy, jobs, and climate change. They promoted plug-in cars as the solution (or prognostic frame) because they were “cleaner-cheaper-domestic.”

As a result, we have seen a dramatic shift in policy and industry support for plug-in cars. Today, every major automaker has a plug-in vehicle in production and there are billions of dollars flowing into this industry.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that what motivates industry shifts may not motivate consumers. Consumers need to know how clean tech satisfies their personal needs, not just social needs. Frames should reflect the personal values of each target market. To facilitate greater demand (and industry success), it is imperative to create visceral messages that touch the “hearts and minds” of Americans.

Shannon Arvizu, Ph.D., is a clean-tech marketing and policy consultant. To find out how to maximize market demand and increase the bottom-line for clean technology, visit www.MissElectric.com.

Shannon Arvizu, Ph.D., is a clean tech educator and cutting-edge consultant for the auto industry. You can follow her test drives in the cars of the future at www.misselectric.com.