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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Winter 2004 :Conspicuous Conservation


Conspicuous Conservation
Believing that "you are what you own," an emerging trend exalts virtue over tawdry materialism.

By Edwin R. Stafford

Driving a Toyota Prius is suddenly chic! But getting one hasn’t been easy. Demand for Motor Trend’s 2004 Car of the Year has been so unexpectedly strong this past summer, buyers have been willing to wait six to eight months and pay $6,000 to $8,000 above its original price of $20,000 to $26,000 to get one. Savvy dealers have been auctioning off spots on waiting lists for $500 or more on eBay, and some anxious buyers have even resorted to on-line auctions to bid over $30,000 for used ones! To better meet demand, Toyota is boosting production in the coming year.

The Prius and other hybrid cars by Honda combine gas engines with battery-powered electric motors to achieve up to 60 miles per gallon. Ford is now launching its own hybrid Escape sport utility vehicle that is expected to achieve about 35 miles per gallon. Ford says that at least 30,000 people have expressed interest in its hybrid SUV over its Web site, but it plans to produce only 20,000 this year. Consequently, Ford is expecting a buying frenzy of its own.

The price premiums for the Prius have been extraordinary considering that most automakers this past year have had to offer significant discounts to encourage sales of their conventional cars and SUVs. Ford has offered $5,000 in incentives for its popular Explorer. Interestingly, given the price markups, the Prius really isn’t economical for drivers interested in fuel savings. Compared to a conventional Toyota Camry, for example, the Prius will save only a few hundred dollars annually on gas. As the price gap between the Prius and other conventional Toyotas widens, the Prius’s gas-savings payback could take years—probably beyond the useful life of the car.

Car culture, however, is all about status, and not surprisingly, most Prius buyers tell the media that saving money really isn’t the issue. Simply put, Prius drivers think their cars are cool! It’s the car of choice for eco-conscious celebrities, such as Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Larry David. Even Google-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin each drive a Prius, reflecting their modish “anti-tycoon” personas. Those lucky enough to drive a Prius say it allows them to make public statements about their social and environmental concerns. Indeed, the Washington Post reported recently that in focus groups, hybrid owners say they prefer the Prius because of its distinctive look—its oversized curved body, high-back end and dazzling digital dashboard. Prius owners admit that they expect to turn heads and receive accolades for their smart choices. In short, many Prius drivers want to be conspicuous.

Green Chic?
Wanting to “be seen” saving energy is called “conspicuous conservation.” Similar to the better known spectacle of “conspicuous consumption,” this emerging trend carries the same belief that “you are what you own.” However, it exalts virtue over tawdry materialism. The idea really isn’t new. A counterculture lifestyle without cars, refrigerators or electricity from the grid has been around since the 1960s. It’s been conspicuous, but hardly alluring. Today’s new conspicuous conservation, however, carries a smarter, high-tech appeal. defines conspicuous conservation as “using technology to live more frugally and to conserve resources,” and it reflects the increasing popularity of state-of-the-art wares and technologies designed elegantly to protect the planet. Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent lights, photovoltaic solar panels, “high performance” homes and wind turbines atop skyscrapers (as planned for New York City’s Freedom Tower) all embody smart frugality with superior performance and style. In the wake of 9/11, the Iraqi war and soaring oil prices, environmentalists’ longstanding advocacy for energy conservation has taken on added resonance. High-tech prudence simply makes sense. As the SUV fades as the icon of the “good life,” the Prius now symbolizes the socially “better life.”

The rising zeal for hybrids and chic frugality could spread, encouraging companies to give other products much-needed efficiency makeovers, such as high-speed computers and air conditioners. Ideally, the trend could spark innovation and create jobs while reducing society’s energy gluttony. Clearly, businesses can take advantage of conspicuous conservation—and perhaps profitably encourage its proliferation—with the right product features and promotional messages. Good “green marketing” offers insights on how.

Selling Value over Virtue
Businesses need to convince consumers that saving energy is smart beyond personal virtue or fashion. Traditionally, consumers have resisted “green products” (e.g., energy-efficient appliances, eco-safe detergents), distrusting their claims or believing that they are not as effective as conventional, “non-green” products. Past research and corporate experience with marketing environmentally-preferable products, however, uncover four important lessons regarding how to give such products mainstream appeal.

First, green products must function as effectively as “non-green” products and avoid the quality/cost trade-off. Consumers will not pay more for inferior products. If green products cost more, consumers must be convinced of their worth. Second, environmental and efficiency product attributes should not be promoted as the primary product benefits. Because consumers select products primarily on how well they meet basic needs (e.g., convenience, functionality, status) rather than how they protect the planet, marketers should promote green features as “added selling points” to already effective products.

Third, environmental product features should be positioned as smart advantages. Consumers are more likely to act on green product messages that they can experience personally, such as “safety” or “cost-effectiveness,” rather than less-personal, earth-oriented messages, such as “ozone-friendly” or “recyclable.” Because green product attributes frequently offer inherent personal health, safety, economic and convenience advantages, companies should emphasize and deliver on these benefits. Philips learned this lesson when marketing the energy-saving “EarthLight,” launched in 1994. Sales initially were lackluster. After some consumer research, however, its name was changed in 2000 to “Marathon” to emphasize the product’s long-life convenience and cost savings—features that better resonated with consumers. Since the name change, according to the Wall Street Journal, sales have grown 12 percent annually. Likewise, the green construction industry has recognized the importance of referring to eco-designed dwellings as “high performance” to emphasize their resource- and energy-efficiency, high-tech convenience and long-term money-savings advantages.

Last, if the green product attributes don’t lead naturally to consumer-sought advantages, add features that do. In China, such a situation confronted marketers of refrigerators that did not use ozone-damaging chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) in the 1990s. Research found that Chinese consumers recognized that “CFC-free” refrigerators were good for the environment, but the feature had little bearing on their purchase decisions. Consequently, the “CFC-free” feature was coupled with others that were important to Chinese consumers, such as energy efficiency, quality and outstanding after-sales service, making CFC-free refrigerators more attractive.

In sum, businesses need to position or combine green and efficiency product attributes with advantages sought by mainstream consumers. Adding hybrid technology to popular SUVs follows this wisdom. To further expand hybrid cars’ appeal, however, automakers need to pitch other benefits. Aside from status, many drivers seek convenience features in a car. Ford’s hybrid Escape offers convenient electrical outlets for drivers who need to plug in laptops, power tools and other appliances while on the road for work or play. In addition to not having to fuel up so often, hybrid cars may even quicken commute time in some states where hybrids are allowed in car pool lanes even without other passengers on board.

Performance is also destined to become another selling point for hybrids. Next spring, Toyota’s Lexus will release its first hybrid SUV, the RX-400h, based on the existing RX-330. Combining a V-6 engine with an electric propulsion system, it will have improved acceleration over the RX-330, the power of a V-8 and the fuel economy of a compact car. Although designed for the status-oriented driver, the RX-400h’s advantages will interest other market segments, such as law enforcement and the park service. Other smart features and advantages are destined to be realized as automakers identify ways to further leverage hybrid technology and align these innovations with the needs of other consumer segments.

Perils of the ‘Cool’ Factor

While promoting chic frugality could bring about a less energy-intensive world, conspicuous conservation isn’t a panacea. Well-meaning consumers may think they’re doing right by buying more and more technologically-efficient gizmos, but in the end, it could lead to more consumption and waste. The problem with hybrid cars, in particular, is that their “greenness” is partly deceptive. They only address fuel economy and not society’s larger behavioral problem—reliance on private automobiles over walking, biking and public transit. The special perks being granted by cities and states to hybrid cars to encourage adoption, such as free parking and access to carpool lanes without passengers onboard, simply reinforce our congested “one car, one driver” lifestyles. Without changing how we think about transit and our overall consumption behavior, the techno-fixes of hybrid cars and conspicuous conservation may achieve only a slight amelioration of our energy and environmental woes.

To benefit society, smart frugality must lead to a smarter awareness of how our consumption impacts our future. If conspicuous conservation only perpetuates the idea that we can chicly buy our way out of the world’s environmental problems, however, it will become just another guise of conspicuous consumption.

Edwin R. Stafford teaches marketing at Utah State University/Logan, and researches the diffusion of cleaner technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at:

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