It's one of the tenets of capitalism: Given a choice of two identical things, people will pick the less expensive one.
Yet next Monday, a new advertising campaign will bluntly ask Canadians to pay a premium of about 30 per cent for a commodity that is indistinguishable from one they already buy every day. In its first mass-media move since launching in late 2005, clean energy provider Bullfrog Power will hit the airwaves with TV and radio spots that conclude with the tagline: Pay More For Energy.
"It's almost a ludicrous thing to say," acknowledges Angus Tucker, the co-creative director of the boutique Toronto agency John St., who oversaw the development of the campaign.
"When you think about it in advertising parlance, it's a really ridiculous thing to say, because you turn the TV on, and 70 per cent of the ads are saying: 'It does what theirs does, for a lot less,'" he said.
"I like the brazen honesty about it."
It's certainly unusual. In one radio spot, a woman equates her willingness to pay a premium for renewable energy to her purchases of organic bananas and fair-trade coffee, concluding: "I feel good every time I see my bill." For those who may buck at a devotee of organic produce, another radio spot features a hockey dad explaining that his wallet is already open for his kids' sports and dance lessons, and renewable energy is just another expression of the parental instinct: "I pay more so my son can enjoy a cleaner planet."
Mr. Tucker said he and his John St. colleagues pitched a number of different approaches to Bullfrog, but executives there immediately realized they wanted to confront the big issue. "They all just said, 'That's it,' and I think because partly it addresses, right out of the gate, the elephant in the room. Which is, 'Sure, I'd like to help the environment - What? It's more expensive?!'" "It said, in no uncertain terms, 'Here's what we're about. If you do sign up, it does cost more.' So if that's a barrier, it's a barrier immediately, as opposed to 20 minutes down the line." He adds: "The risks would be that people don't look beyond the surface and just go, 'Well, I don't want to pay more for energy.' What we think is, it's such a, 'Huh?!' It's such a 'What?!' that we think, just purely on the surface it's enough of a head-snapper to get people to think about it."
The campaign, which includes print, out-of-home (billboards, bus shelters, etc.), and a robust digital component that will involve customers uploading their own videos explaining why they opted for clean energy, is timed to run roughly between Earth Hour on March 27 and the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.
Bullfrog pegs the campaign's cost at $400,000 to $500,000, which is a lot of money for a company that currently has only about 8,000 residential and fewer than 2,000 business customers across the country. Most of those customers are either passionate and knowledgeable about the environment (so-called "dark green" consumers) or smart about the publicity value of aligning with a cause such as clean energy.
Still, to attract more customers Bullfrog needs to create a bigger market by educating people about its own business and, to some extent, about the entire energy industry. It's trying to make the point that we all pay in dozens of ways, usually without noticing, for less-expensive energy.
"Conventional energy has many costs associated with it that are not reflected in the price," said Tom Heintzman, Bullfrog's president, referring to the effects on human health and the environment - absent from any company balance sheet - of so-called dirty energy plants. (Your Economics 101 prof called these costs "externalities.") "That notion of pricing-in externalities is a dialogue that's been conducted in academia, somewhat in the media, but not at all at the street level," Mr. Heintzman continues. "But it's one of the most important questions for Canadians, and frankly everyone, to wrestle with, because it's one of the most powerful levers to address climate change."
After expanding its reach into six provinces - British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI - Bullfrog believes the time is right to shift from a grassroots, one-to-one, event- and community-based marketing approach to mass media. "There's still more dark green out there," Mr. Heintzman said. "But the purpose of a campaign like this is to try to take it closer and closer to the mainstream."
The campaign, which will be available on Monday at paymoreforenergy.ca , isn't based on any hard research; the creative elements were still being finalized this week, so there's been no focus group testing on the spots or even on their primary message. "Bullfrog has just been built up on a mixture of common sense and intuition," Mr. Heintzman explained.
But there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest people are ready to listen to the company's appeal. Mr. Heintzman notes there are already myriad examples of consumers - and businesses - making decisions based upon the broader effects of their purchasing practices. "I think the same mindset can carry over to renewable energy," he said. In developing the campaign, "we thought the organic parallel held, and fair-trade coffee, even things like sweatshop-free clothing: A T-shirt is a T-shirt, but I'll pay 20 per cent more for a T-shirt if I know it's not being made by 10-year-olds. This is not radical thinking, these are decisions that millions of Canadians are making on a daily basis, so we thought the time was right to actually take this kind of thinking into the energy area."
And it turns out that, if consumers aren't buying something tangible with that 30-per-cent premium for renewable energy, they're getting a psychological benefit. "People read about the big pressing issues of climate change and air quality and health problems daily, and as individuals we have a real sense of wanting to control. We don't like problems that are so big we feel like we have no influence on them," Mr. Heintzman notes.
"Energy has always been one-size-fits-all, so having a choice that gives them a bit of influence and a bit of control is something that gives people hope in the face of these kind of stark headlines."
Hope and satisfaction: Now selling for about 3 cents per kilowatt hour.