Myth and legend tells of our fascination and fear of energy, how we see energy not just as a source of power but also as a sign of knowledge and creativity. It’s the idea of the spark in a literal sense and in the sense with which we associate it with imagination.
In 2011, consumers have respect and fear of energy, not least in relation to nuclear power post-Fukushima. Consumers are anxious about the environmental impact of energy and energy production and have a hazy awareness of the yo-yo-ing in the price of energy as the rapidly growing economies of BRIC nations demand their share of the world’s resources. So how are energy companies dealing with all of this in their communications and interactions with consumers?
There is one core concept in energy communications that everything else plays off of – science, and its visual language of knowledge, discovery and innovation. The belief in science and its visual language is based on something real in the energy industry which requires scientists, technicians and engineers to constantly advance technology to keep our resources flowing. But it’s partly used because people at a deep level just believe in science. There are two takeouts for marketing and communications:
1 Energy: science and solution
Post-Fukushima, we still believe in the ability of science to deliver solutions and progress. Though talking to some of our experts, it is clear that belief will be tested in the coming years.
2 Energy: social and cultural context
The energy sector is intimately bound up with economic, cultural, political and environmental issues. The experts we interview in The Curve have a deep knowledge of the energy sector and come from a wide variety of backgrounds but they all agree on the fact that energy, its creation, supply, and use is deeply embedded in a wider social context.
The strategic response by energy companies is at one level, to emphasise the science and technology involved in developing solutions. Which brings us to “Smart”. Smart is the buzzword of the moment – Smart-grid, Smart-buildings etc. Smart is shorthand for fast-practical-science. Smart means science without the labcoat and the bunsen burner. It’s the energy sector’s way of promoting both innovation and consumer behaviour change. But “Smart” is also a shiny new adjective for something we all understand deep down – tools. All these new devices which help us measure our consumption and spending on power are simply digital tools. And any communication that visualises this idea around tools that help us fix and find solutions will strike a chord.
Green electricity energy-provider Entega sponsored German artist Ralf Schmerberg to create an installation in Hamburg, Germany. Entitled Wastefulness Is the Biggest Source of Energy, he created an igloo out of 322 old fridges.
Inside the igloo there’s a collection of standard domestic appliances – TV, toasters, a washing machine – with the warmth inside generated from the wasteful electricity of the fridges, and these units of electricity showing up on a giant meter.
Ralf Schmerberg and creative agency DDB Berlin also created a three-day event in central Berlin with speakers, music, readings and participation by members of the public who built 870 snowmen. The huge electricity meter visually demonstrated how much electricity would be consumed by the old fridges. Sponsored by Entega it aimed to raise awareness around climate change by giving a very real and relatable example of energy consumption while promoting its green electricity offering.
It would be easy to dismiss these events as stunts but they did something much more significant. They created an image, a spectacle on a grand scale, aiming to create a sense of self-reflection around wasteful behaviour. And with trends around self-reflection, the portrait image will chime with greater awareness around the need to be more conscious of our habits and choices.
“The footprint has become part of our language simply because it captures that sense of scale”
Corporate campaigns across many sectors invoke the idea and visual language of team effort, of groups of people pulling together – in the energy sector this idea is very tangible and uncontrived. Between Peak Oil, the energy consumption of the emergent BRIC nations and climate change, our experts all point out the reality check that is heading our way in terms of lifestyle changes. Imagery that links the individual to the bigger picture will be crucial in encouraging the sense that people can make a difference through changing their own behaviour.
Visualizing sustainable solutions in the energy sector means visualizing a social narrative – a story about “us” acting together. The best campaigns in our study all demand a degree of imagination and a spirit of collective commitment. It’s clear from the experts we talked to that the issues we will face around energy over the coming years are not simply going to be solved by the actions of energy companies. What is also clear is that the challenges of arriving at a global political consensus around diminishing energy resources will mean institutions with creative resources to stimulate action such as NGOs and advertising agencies will need to continue to take the initiative in sparking ideas all of us can take hold of.
“Imagination and creativity will be central to sparking changes in behaviour”
Imagination and creativity will be central to sparking changes in behaviour. Leo Burnett, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund and Fairfax Media in Australia created a global visual event with Earth Hour. Their Business Director Claire Kesby-Smith told us of the importance of collective imagination – “with social issues and environmental issues,” she says, “when people identify a problem that needs to be solved individually the problem feels too large for them to do anything, or to have any impact. So this sense of community that you can identify with and visually see in terms of the collective result is very empowering.”