Cleantech and climate change may now be buzzwords in China, but they are centered on technologies that are removed from daily life, like solar power and water filtration. For the average consumer, saving energy – and the environment – can be a vaporous notion.
The marketing consultancy What If was asked by the Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), a non-profit group, to figure out how to rally China’s millions of consumers around the idea of energy conservation.
It quickly found that commonly held assumptions about Chinese consumers – like the idea that they could be motivated only by cost – were wrong.
“Money is not enough to motivate consumers,” said Arjan Polhuis of What If’s Shanghai office. “Most people are already doing some sort of energy saving.”
Leaving the light on
This seemingly contradictory claim is borne out by Rob Watson, the man behind the green buildings code, LEED, and who has advised the Chinese government on energy efficiency and conservation issues in buildings.
According to Watson, people adapted to China’s energy-wasting buildings in the past by adapting their consumption behavior – they denied themselves amenity. Chinese of an older generation routinely keep their heaters or air conditioners off even in the most uncomfortable temperatures, electing to suffer the heat or cold instead of paying for the high cost of keeping their appliances turned on. Now, however, younger Chinese consumers are sufficiently rich that they don’t have to be so frugal.
“Buildings tend to focus on conservation quite a bit … lights are off, thermostats are off; it’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer.” he said. “Now as China gets wealthier, [consumers] are taking it back in amenity. So energy [use] goes up without any corresponding bump in GDP.”
The What If survey concluded that to convince Chinese consumers to save energy, it must be emphasized that reducing energy consumption leads to reduced pollution and thus better health.
This is the thinking behind an information campaign that JUCCCE founder Peggy Liu describes as a green version of the famous US “Got milk?” initiative.
Liu, a former venture capitalist and consultant at McKinsey, has mined her contacts book to get the campaign started. Her recruits include Kitty Lun, who runs advertising agency Lowe in China.
“She’s nicknamed the ‘slogan queen of China,’” Liu said. “She’s presented a few options of slogans that might be something we can use as our ‘Got milk?’”
One of the Chinese language slogans being considered is “Save energy. Clean up energy,” which plays on the phonetics of the characters for “save” and “clean up.” That’s to be followed with the corollary “build a healthy future,” which uses the similar-sounding characters for “build” and “health” to underline its message.
Once the slogan and campaign brief are finalized, Liu will find the “best directors and the best celebrities” to participate in the ads. Several celebrities have expressed interest, although she couldn’t say who as the contracts aren’t signed yet.
Liu intends to have the ads ready sometime next year and has already made agreements for free airtime and display.
What If’s finding – that linking health and energy conservation will resonate with Chinese consumers – may sound like a stretch, but other market observers, such as Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group, corroborate it.
Rein says his company’s research shows that consumers’ health concerns are increasing and this is having an effect on purchasing decisions. Therefore, it’s not just non-profit enterprises that should understand the link between health and the environment. Corporations have to exploit the connection too.
“Multinationals especially need to say that their products are non-toxic, that they’re better for your health and the wellbeing of your family,” Rein said.
But consumers aren’t stupid. Companies have to do more than just pay lip service to the environmental theme if they are to succeed, according to Will Moss, a Beijing-based senior manager at public relations firm Burston Marsteller.
“What a company says has to be backed up by deeds,” he said.