While the debate about the death of green marketing is far from being over, we see signs that green marketing is not only living, but also evolving. Interestingly, these vital signs come from the solar industry, where Sunrun, the largest home solar company in the U.S., is running an advertising campaign that can be characterized as the next generation of green marketing. In other words: welcome to green marketing 3.0.
Green marketing 1.0 was all about convincing consumers to buy green products because it’s the right thing to do. Then companies switched to green marketing 2.0 – talking to customers about benefits they actually care about. One of the best examples of this evolution can be found in the ads for the Nissan Leaf, where the company switched from a hugging and thankful polar bear to a print ad showing customers how the car excels when it comes to “miles traveled for one dollar.” The print ad, as Andrew Winston wrote, “is brilliant marketing, in tight economic times or at any time.” Now Sunrun is pushing the envelope even further, offering an updated format – green marketing 2.0 that is making fun of green marketing 1.0.
Sunrun, a company that offers solar leasing and PPAs to over 15,000 customers in the U.S., is focusing its new campaign on the cost savings third-party owned solar panels generate. There’s nothing new about this message, but the campaign is making this point in a unique and comical way, trying to break the stereotypes about the cost of solar (high) as well as the people who go solar (treehuggers).
In the Dolphin Babies ad, for example, we see a middle-aged couple working in their garden. The voiceover tells us that “Paul and Kathy recently switched to solar with Sunrun.” Then, it tries to make the case that while they have lowered their energy costs, the couple really did it to save dolphin babies. The couple looks surprised and contradicts the voiceover (No, it’s the money thing), and then it evolves into a funny dialogue, where the voiceover tries to convince the couple it is actually about the dolphin babies, while they insists it’s really about saving money.
The concept of ‘it’s more about the environment’ voiceover vs. ‘it’s more about the money’ customers is presented in more ads like The Best Part, and even has a more sophisticated version (see below) where a greenish couple appears on a poster for BBMG’s New Consumers and yet, even they are doing it, first and foremost, for the money.
The focus on regular folks using third-party owned solar panels first and foremost to save money is a smart way to inform the public that solar panels are no longer affordable only to rich people caring about the environment. Doesn’t the public know that already? Well, apparently not. According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive last February about the desirability and cost of installing home solar panels, 97 percent overestimate the cost of residential solar panels, and 78 percent who do not already have PV panels say they would go solar if cost were not a factor.
This poll shows that solar companies like Sunrun that offer homeowners the chance to install solar for as little as no money down, and locked in low electricity rates for the next 20 years, has a misinformation problem they need to deal with. “The widespread myth that solar is too expensive is a remnant from the time when buying costly panels for tens of thousands of dollars was the only option,” Sunrun President and Co-Founder Lynn Jurich told Solar Tribune.
Still, the new ad campaign is not just about providing information. It is also trying to build a new image for solar panels. It wants to rebrand them as a product that helps regular people save money. Saving mother earth? That’s a nice add-on, but nothing more than that. It’s interesting to see that even with the organically ad (aka the pickling guy) that can be characterized as aimed at greener consumers, the message is that saving money comes first. When you look at research it actually makes sense – the 70 million people BBMG identified as New Consumers are looking for triple value proposition, uniting practical benefits, social and environmental and tribal benefits, but even this segment is very practical and takes its constrained budget into consideration.
The Sunrun campaign wants people to think of solar panel leasing as an easy solution regular people can trust and feel comfortable with. This is why the use of humor and especially this sort of self-humor is such a great strategy as it doesn’t ignore the prejudice people have about solar panels, but makes fun of it. This is a very effective way to neutralize these sorts of stereotypes and get people to see solar panels in different light. Since solar panels are not the only green product suffering from these sorts of stereotypes, I won’t be surprised to see more green products adopting green marketing 3.0 and start making fun of green stereotypes. Who knows, it might even work.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.