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Campus Energy Wars: Effective Marketing Campaigns to Change Behavior

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Katie Grote

When I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, my roommate’s boyfriend would crank up the Black Crowes to earsplitting volumes, then leave the room for 45 minutes at a time.  I left my computer on for days, even though the fan was so loud that a friend finally drew a picture of a motorcycle and taped it to my CPU as a joke.  My other roommate regularly propped the window open eighteen inches every night, even in December, even though we were in Maine.

Behavior change may be the holy grail of green building, since even the most LEED platinum building in the world will waste energy if its occupants leave the lights on all the time. Environmental psychologist and sustainable behavior change expert Doug McKenzie-Mohr notes that marketing efforts to promote voluntary efficiency have traditionally faltered because they relied on two false premises.  First, marketers assumed that information would solve all ills: if people just understood why and how they should change their behavior, they would do so.  (Hint: they don’t, and won't).  Marketers also assumed that humans are rational, economically-driven beings and that making the financial case for efficient practices would change behaviors.  As a poor grad student who occasionally pays $100+ utility bills due to her inefficient baseboard heaters, I can personally vouch that economics don’t always change behavior.  During San Francisco’s gray, seahag fog days of August, I sometimes just want to be warm.

So what can influence people towards greater efficiency, if neither information nor economics is enough?  McKenzie-Mohr outlines a few simple steps to change behavior.  Marketers should first identify a clear behavior to promote, then identify barriers blocking that behavior.  In designing a marketing program, he notes that using psychological tools like asking for a commitment from participants, using prompts to encourage easily forgettable behaviors, and involving personal contact can dramatically increase the desired behavior.  Piloting programs, monitoring them, and then scaling them can ensure that marketing budgets are only spent on programs that are actually effective.

In the years since I left “Camp Bobo,” as we affectionately called it, my alma mater has used similar marketing strategies to become a national leader in college campus efficiency.  The year after I graduated, it began an annual competition in which dorms compete to reduce their energy usage.  Whereas in my day students blared classic rock to make themselves seem cool, the 2011 challenge winners describe “stumbling around in the dark to conserve energy” and being “pretty pumped” to be the greenest house on campus.  Bowdoin’s successful energy efficiency competition was only one tactic in its goal to be carbon neutral by 2007.  The school also has a “RecycleMania” competition, uses volunteer student and administration “Eco Reps” to educate peers on environmental practices, integrates campus sustainability initiatives into first year orientation, and regularly supplements its top rated dining services with produce from its organic garden.

Happily, Bowdoin is only one of many colleges today driving behavior change with green campus initiatives.  In November of 2010, over 120,000 students in 40 colleges competed to reduce their energy, saving approximately 508,694 kilowatt-hours in the process.  In February and April of 2012, the colleges will compete again, this time with the goal of saving a gigawatt of energy nationally.  In my mind, the most exciting outcome of these college challenges could be a new generation of leaders who already know how to market and implement sustainable behavior changes.

Is your alma mater or business also jumping on the energy efficiency bandwagon?  What campaigns have you seen work, and why?

Katie Grote is a green building specialist and LEED AP with a summa cum laude A.B. from Bowdoin College.  She currently is an MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School and is happy to report that the Black Crowes sound just as good as they used to back in the day.  

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