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Sungevity: Jump-Starting the Sustainable Marketing Revolution?

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

Every time I turn on the radio these days, I hear Sungevity advertisements saying that “solar is not just for environmentalists anymore!”  The Oakland-based photovoltaic leasing company invites prospective customers to “Join the Rooftop Revolution” by saving money, not the earth.

These marketing messages are surprising, given Sungevity’s reputation as a passionate, mission-driven company.  Could Sungevity’s advertising campaign be a smart new strategy to market sustainable products to folks who just aren’t bothered about rainforests, manatees, or the health of the planet? In other words, can they bring solar to the non-LOHAS [Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability] market?

Much of Sungevity’s current advertising emphasizes the financial benefits and reliability of a photovoltaic system.  One recent video shows upper-middle class professionals of all different ethnicities finding money with the same ease that they turn on a light switch.  The video’s message clearly illustrates that solar installations save money and work well – and if they help the environment, too, well, we won’t mention that.  The messages follow strategies outlined in a 2009 report by Clean Energy Group and SmartPower which states that customers do not respond well to the “environmental” argument but that, “Messages that connect on a financial or value level are most likely to succeed.”  In fact, even though PV prices continue to decline, many customer still believe that solar panels are expensive and unreliable.  Sungevity’s current campaign directly challenges these beliefs.

Perhaps a larger motivation for Sungevity’s marketing strategy is to move beyond the LOHAS market into segments with fewer sustainable values.  The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) describes the LOHAS market as American consumers most likely to make purchasing decisions around values of environmental sustainability, personal health, and social justice.  In 2010, the LOHAS market represented $290M in consumer sales, with 44 million individuals compromising 19% of the US population.

However, if 19% of Americans are LOHAS consumers, then 81% of Americans are not LOHAS consumers.  NMI divides the remaining US market into four additional segments with specific purchasing attitudes around sustainibility: Naturalites, Drifters, Conventionals, and Unconcerneds.  Naturalites are focused on organic foods and beverages but have little or no political commitment to environmental causes.  Drifters may care about the environment but their purchasing decisions are more often driven by price and current trends.  Although Conventionals and Unconcerneds may engage in some “baseline” environmental behaviors like municipal recycling, by and large they are unmotivated by environmental concerns.

Sungevity’s current marketing materials are poised to tap into the immense buying power of these non-LOHAS customers.  Radio advertisements that “thousands of Americans are saving money on their power bills” would appeal well to the trend-sensitive Drifters as well as the practical Conventionals.  Unconcerneds who couldn't care less about the planet could still be swayed by an offer to save money, especially if they do not have become an “environmentalist” in the process.

For the sustainability movement to become truly mainstream, companies must find ways to reframe their products to appeal to multiple market segments.  Sungevity’s Rooftop Revolution could be one step towards a Sustainability Revolution.  It would bring sustainable products to mainstream consumers, simply by reminding them that it’s just as much about cost savings as it could be about the environment.

What do you think?  Do you believe Sungevity’s new campaign will succeed with non-LOHAS customers?  Or will its new ads simply alienate LOHAS customers and look like a betrayal of its mission-focused, sustainable company values? Katie Grote, LEED AP (BD&C) & CGBP, is a San Francisco-based green building specialist and 2012 MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School.