Passive Buildings vs Active Marketing: What's In a Name?

Wed Aug 17, 2011 10:30am IST

"Passive" construction is an innovative building technique that reduces energy requirements for heating, cooling and ventilating up to 80 percent. The occupants are more comfortable since a passive building provides consistent temperatures, eliminates drafts and circulates fresh, filtered air. Impressive!

Would You Name Your Concept "Inert" or "Inactive"?

The name passive construction is from the German passive building movement -- PassivHaus. The term "passive" is meant to convey that the building uses mostly non-mechanical methods for heating, cooling and ventilation. This is in contrast to the typical modern building where "active" mechanical systems do most of the work.

Although scientifically correct, the name "passive" creates a poor first impression with an English speaking non-technical audience. Passive is usually used when you want to describe someone or something that is submissive, inert or inactive. Not exactly a word that triggers interest. "Passive" extinguishes any thoughts of innovation or quality.

With A Poor Name, the Consumer May Tune Out Before You Can Educate

Some may think that with solid marketing a poor name can be overcome. The effort is likely to be considerable because most of us use shortcuts to manage complexity. A name is one of those shortcuts.

• Is "Jennifer" more attractive than "Gertrude"? Yes. Researchers Willis and Henderson found an attractive name makes the person seem more attractive. When showing participants unnamed photos of two attractive women, both received equal votes when asked who is "most attractive". The results changed dramatically when labeled "Jennifer" and "Gertrude." "Jennifer" was then selected 60 percent more frequently.

• Can "free" be a poor offer? Yes. The founders of "free software" movement thought they had the perfect name. But corporate and other customers were wary of a product that was free. Free software took off when it was rebranded as "open source".

• Is "Caverject" a new James Bond weapon? No, it is an injectable erectile dysfunction drug. Three years after Caverject's launch, Pfizer planned a new approach to market directly to consumers. Pfizer's customer focus paid off. The new drug was christened "Viagra."

With limited opportunity to gain the consumer's attention, why waste a marketing effort to correct a deficit that can be easily turned into an asset?

But Is Marketing Even Appropriate?

Some may find marketing distasteful since marketing has been used to hard-sell products that may be dubious at best or outright harmful for the consumer and the environment.

Philip Kotler, the father of modern marketing, explains that virtuous "Marketing is the art of creating genuine customer value. It is the art of helping your customers become better off."

The intention is to practice virtuous marketing to get more sustainable practices and products adopted. The term "passive," used in this context, requires a detailed explanation before most people get it. In the long run, poor marketing will likely hinder and great marketing will help the acceptance of passive and other green buildings.

First Things First: Define the Marketing Strategy

The name is just one part of the marketing mix and to be most effective it should complement the overall marketing strategy.

Reis & Ries advised in the marketing classic The Origins of Brands to first find weaknesses in the leading brand. Then show the consumer how the new brand is the next revolutionary step and diverges from the old category. Brands that excelled at this repositioning are:

  • Starbucks robust taste diverges from regular (weak) coffee
  • Mercedes / Lexus (next generation of luxury) diverges from Cadillac / Lincoln (your dad's version of luxury)
  • Silk soy (nature's perfect protein) milk diverges from traditional (lactose) milk

The passive house marketing was on the right track. It intuitively tried to find an opposing position to exploit weaknesses of the leader by comparing itself to the active house. The strategy was sound, the execution was poor. Unfortunately "active / passive" is terminology only a mechanical engineer understands in the right way.

Let's explore potential brand positions by contrasting the mechanical house --- the current standard to the energy efficient house. This exercise is to find opposing attributes.

The next section defines three brand positions from the set of opposing attributes. Of the three brand positions, a particular housing development would emphasize only one. Three are offered since we want the efficient house to appeal to the most home buyers.

1. Operational Efficiency: Start saving this month

Operational efficiency appears to be a strong position, but how successful would Walmart be if its slogan was "Buy today and save in ten years?"

Rather than sell a difficult "investment" concept, a much stronger claim is to "stop wasting money on utility bills this month."

Note that the benefit is phrased to emphasize loss --- "stop wasting…" Behaviorists have found that losses create a stronger emotional appeal than savings. It is the "crying over spilt milk" syndrome.

For this strategy, the goal of marketing is to figure out how to adjust the product offering to make that claim valid. This may require:

  • Defining financing options to realize positive cash flow in the first month. It wasn't until financing options became available that appliances such as refrigerators took off.
  • Planning to allow for continued investment over the life of the product as energy costs increase and costs for energy efficiency decline. Such as adding more solar later.
  • Focusing on energy savings features with the best returns.

One other benefit of the "stop wasting money on utility bills" is that it implies independence from utility companies. Be it libertarians, green enthusiasts, retirees on a fixed income, many have reason to appreciate generating their own energy.

2. Healthy Indoor Air: Accentuate a unique attribute

The air in our homes is often more polluted than outdoor air --- 2 to 5 times more polluted. With more than fifty million Americans suffering from allergies, asthma and other respiratory issues, the fresh filtered indoor air has the potential to bring relief.

To strengthen this strategy, marketing should also consider the other features of the home that complement the "clean air" concept such as low VOC paints and use of other materials that avoid outgassing.

Some may think that a single attribute such as health is insufficient to attract buyers. There are many successful brands that focused on the health / safety attributes:

  • Car → Volvo
  • Cleaning product → Clorox became a killer product by killing germs
  • Bathing soap → Ivory 99 & 44/100 pure

A "clean air" position also implies quality and comfort.

3. High end: Fits your quality lifestyle

Most categories can support a luxury position. A luxury position is also consistent with current home market that ranges from starter homes to multi-million dollar villas.

Since there is more discretionary income, more features can be tried on this segment first.

The attributes of the passive house that will appeal to the luxury segment is emphasizing the utmost in comfort; including consistent indoor temperatures, fresh filtered air and quiet. With these benefits, the family can rejuvenate in their sanctuary.

The "artisanal" aspects of the home should be communicated as this is evidence of quality. For example, site considerations are used to work with nature and latest technology. Passive building respects traditional knowledge and skills that our grandparents used to build solid homes.

Often times a luxury buyer wants his purchase to be recognized by others. Examples are the distinctive Rolex wristband, the icon of a high-end car, and the designer handbag. Since energy efficiency is often hidden, creative marketing will be required to make it visible.

Green May Be Obvious, But Not Popular

The obvious choice to us engineers and green enthusiasts is to focus on the environmental and energy conservation benefits. As Joel Makower pointed out in his recent article Green Marketing Is Over, Let's Move On, consumers relate best to benefits that are personal or in this case closer to home.

There is an interesting challenge -- quality and green. This is all too often a counter-intuitive association for many consumers since they perceive green products as providing less performance, some inconvenience, and fewer options. Green may be better served to be inferred and handled in the details rather than the primary selling feature to move beyond the early adopters and attract the mass market.

Some may worry that the green consumer will overlook a message that does not hammer green. Green consumers are on the look-out for green. Operational efficiency and energy independence are all clear indicators that a product is likely to be green.

Time for a Marketing Course Correction

Passive construction is all about working with nature and science to build more effectively. This same principle can be used when marketing. Work with human nature and behavioral science to market more effectively.

Passivhaus photo CC-licensed by Michael Schmid.

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