Making Energy Sexy – The 6 Golden Rules (Pt 1)

New York. Amsterdam.

“Just come, dude… there’ll be supermodels and free wine.”

“Ok. See you in an hour”

I’m in New York. Barron, my childhood buddy from Nowra has just invited me to a jewellery label launch at a small gallery in Soho. I’m not so much into jewellery, but I’ll check it out anyway. Barron’s neighbours happen to be Jay-Z and Beyonce – so who knows who will be there…

“I love this city”, I think to myself. “Unlimited upside.”

I arrive and try my hand at small talk to some of the party’s guests. Victoria Secret models, music producers, fashion designers, artists and young venture capitalists sporting monster beards. This is the New York creative class – talented people from all over the world, here to make the big time.

The inevitable question arrives.

“Why are you travelling?”  

My answer, “I’m on a scholarship to visit the world’s most exciting energy start-ups,” occasionally piques interest. But today it was a conversation killer. The black French beret I was wearing couldn’t overcome the fact I work in energy.

Like most people, they find energy boring. Super boring.

The following video is a humorous parody summarising our image problem…

How do we make people care about energy?

“Energy is full of technicians. Whilst they are great at technical stuff, technical doesn’t sell. Technical stuff doesn’t create a movement, nor the revolution we need to stop global warming. We need to open their hearts”.

That nugget of wisdom is from McGowan Southworth. If you’ve ever heard Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease, then you have also heard McGowan. He’s the co-writer and guitar player. He’s also written with Missy Higgins, Matt Corby and Old Man River. Luckily for him, royalties mean he has time to focus on what he loves to do – and lately he’s been turning his attention to energy with Brooklyn Power Co (blog post profile coming soon).

Check out McGowan on the electric guitar in Ben Lee’s hit single.

Coming from a creative industry to energy, McGowan’s fresh ideas on storytelling and marketing of renewable energy really resonated with me and have inspired this thought-piece.

“There’s a big difference between a darn good song, and a magical song. A magical song takes off…it’s totally transcendent. The industry sells solar as a commodity, money in money out – and there is nothing magical about that.”

McGowan quote #2

From analysis of emerging clean-tech companies around the world (via my Churchill Fellowship), I’ve managed to distill good energy communication down to six basic rules, which hopefully can provide our industry with some inspiration to make energy as magical as a hit song.

Rule #1 – Have a story to tell

Hector Fail
Hector educating a poor student on the merits of coal to humanity

Like mutton dressed as lamb, making fossil fuel exciting is very difficult. Remember Hector the lump of coal, speaking to kids in the Dalrymple Library? No further comment is required.

Energy retailers in the last year have resorted to using owls (Energy Australia), or guaranteeing that the lights will be on when moving to new house (AGL). The problem with these companies is that their value proposition is not interesting to consumers, hence the need to resort to price discounting or irrelevant gimmicks.

By selling renewables and clean-tech solutions, we come from a better starting point than the mainstream energy companies. But, despite this, electricity is still a homogeneous product at the wall socket. We need better stories to stand out and connect people with their energy in ways that we’ve never done before.

To highlight some positive examples, let’s separate the concept of the story (the underlying business model and its creation) from the story-telling (the delivery of the story to the audience).

In the following three examples, the story is strong enough to inspire participation and customer loyalty, despite often less than ‘sexy’ storytelling.

EWS – Schoenau (click for link)

The story of a humble and determined group of citizens buying back the grid has inspired 180,000 customers to join their clean energy movement throughout Germany. They have a no-frills, almost old-fashioned communication approach which plays on the negatives of the nuclear industry, but their positive community response is key story to their success.


Similarly, Prokon, a German wind company and now a co-operative, grew their 1GW wind portfolio by inspiring a movement of almost 75,000 German citizen investors. The story-telling and branding looks like something that German engineer came up with in the 1990’s, but the participatory business model was compelling enough to turn it into the world’s biggest citizen-financed energy movement.


Energy4All are a UK co-operative who have raised the equivalent of A$60m in citizen investment in community-owned wind, solar and hydro projects for almost 20 co-operatives. With deep community benefits and strong investor returns of up near 10% per annum, the group routinely sell out their share offers in a matter of days. Their story combined with the value preposition is enough to succeed despite their rudimentary marketing materials.

The story is a prerequisite, but alone it has limits

These inspiring successes showcase some of the world’s leading citizen energy movements. They have built their organisation largely off the back of their story and the value preposition of the business model alone.

But how tangible are their successes in the scheme of whole of system change?

Take EWS for example. Their story is so inspiring and has been told far and wide the world over. Whilst their 180,000 customers may seem huge, it represents only a 3.6% market share of Germany’s green energy market, or a 0.45% gross market share of all German households. Without taking anything away from their amazing achievements, given EWS’s large public profile, I’d argue that better branding and story telling in recent years would have seen them continue to grow beyond their current market share and therefore push their mission of a nuclear free world to a wider audience.

How do we make ‘alternative energy’ mainstream?

If all clean tech adoption was placed on Roger’s Bell Curve of Technological Adoption, most clean technologies and services are still in the ‘innovators’ life cycle.


Even if we look at two of the leading clean tech markets in the world, we have not yet reached the ‘early majority’ with clean energy take. For example, in Germany, Greenpower customers are 13% of the total even with very cheap Norwegian Hydropower making it as cheap as non-renewable power. Similarly, Australia’s 1.4million solar households equates to only 13% uptake, despite the fact it makes economic sense for much more.

We are at a critical time in both these markets, at the edge of ‘early adopters’ and attempting to eat into the ‘early majority’.  Geoffrey Moore, in his book Crossing the Chasm identifies this point along the adoption chain as a the most difficult to cross owing to very different mindsets of the two groups.

To penetrate the majority, our goods and services not only need a solid story and value preposition, but also inspiring branding, storytelling and commitment. Today’s frenetic media noise demands it. We need to be technicians and master storytellers if we are to take ‘alternative energy’ mainstream.

The following Golden Rules #2-6, if layered over the prerequisite of Rule #1 of a solid story, could create the ‘magic song’ that McGowan says we need.

Rule #2 – Win hearts, by making it about people

“If you can win someone’s heart, money fades into the background.”

McGowan quote #3

Unlike what rational economists believe, humans don’t make decisions based on an optimum value trade-off. We often make decisions by a gut reaction or social norms. When deciding to purchase a new product, the odds of us doing so go up remarkably when our heart is engaged.

Policy-makers often talk about capital barriers and information barriers which prevent the uptake of new energy technologies. But these barriers – among others – often fall away if someone is serious motivated by their heart to take action.

The Heart Test

Earlier this year, I wanted to test the impact of the head versus the heart when it comes to community energy investment decisions. Repower Shoalhaven had just launched its second community solar project on the rooftops of two local churches and we were seeking $57,000 in investment from our members via a closed-offer.

Initially, we kept our marketing focus on the financial offer and the high levels of due diligence we put into the project.  The dollars crawled in but stalled at about 40% of our target after three weeks.

With the fundraising deadline approaching, we knew was time to engage the hearts of our members by changing tact on the marketing.

We sent out a simple email to the members of our community group which attempted to:

  1. engage the member on a personal level to inspire action,
  2. remind the member of the collective and personal journey that the Repower Shoalhaven members have worked hard for
  3. remind the member of the bigger, visionary mission we are a part of via Arno the Bavarian ‘energy legend’ – Mayor of Wildpoldsried.

Repower Two email promo

Despite dubious formatting – the results were immediate and the offer was quickly oversubscribed. The lesson was clear: make it personal to engage hearts to inspire action and a new consumer behaviour.

How EWS won hearts with a compelling people focused campaign

Community energy pioneers EWS, from the Black Forest, Germany, are best known as the community group famously buying back the electricity network from a corporate utility in the 90’s.

After gaining widespread media interest from their David v Goliath referendum victory which gave them the right to run the grid, EWS launched a savvy campaign to help raise the money to buy it. They contacted 100 marketing agencies in Germany to ask for free help in developing a marketing campaign. The winning entry was a poignant advert series, making people question the risks of nuclear energy directly, and also the power structures in the existing energy system.


The campaign pictured local people from the community – children, father, mothers, the elderly – with the slogan ‘Ich bin ein Stoerfall’ which translates to ‘I am an accident’ or ‘I am a bother’, referring to both the nuclear accident but also to the resistance of the people who are getting in the way of corporate profits. They asked newspapers around Germany for free advertising space, and the group raise over 2 million mark from the campaign in a matter of weeks.

With this campaign, the community group reinforced their image as ‘Energy Rebels’ – a badge they wore with pride and leveraged to grow into a large, impactful anti-nuclear movement and community energy retailer. Note: In a lesser known story, the local church was the site of one of the world’s first solar crowd-funding campaigns in the late 90’s via a mix of donation, investment and grant funding; you can read about this fascinating story on my blog post here.

Vandebron – connecting people through storytelling

Vandebron is a start-up energy retailer who is nailing energy communication. The combination of a great story and even better storytelling has rewarded them with 50,000 new energy customers in their first 18 months of operation.

Vandebron have gotten a broad spectrum of people to care about energy, simply by making energy all about people.

As a peer-to-peer energy retailer, Vandebron – which literally means ‘of-the-source’ – use people as their greatest storytelling asset. Their website features the carefully crafted personal stories of each owner-generator,  allowing customers to select where their power comes from based on the ‘face behind the power’.

This promotional video effectively stimulates a customer connection with the owner-generators – who are clearly normal characters. Despite being in Dutch it’s still worth watching and appreciating.

The staff are the second key pawn in Vandebron’s ‘making it personal’ communication game. Their social media feed regularly showcases their staff – who just happen to be young, good looking Dutch folk that we wish were friends with. Having visited their offices first hand, the youthful, positive energy in the room was so strong a feeling that it was hard to leave! Below are some recent photos of staff from their Facebook wall:


The third group that Vandebron showcase are customers – photos and videos of which also regularly feature in their social media feeds.

Put it all together and you get hands down the highest quality social media presence I saw in my journey. The customer engagement speaks for itself. The table below compares engagement data from Vandebron’s last 10 Facebook posts, relative to the last 10 posts from the Clean Energy Collective (CEC), in November 2015.

Note: The CEC are the leading community solar provider in the US who claims to have more Facebook likes than any US energy company.

Vandebron v CEC

As you can see, Vandebron have 25 time the engagement of CEC, with very high rates of sharing and comments. Furthermore, 9o% of Vandebron’s Facebook posts are about Vandebron itself, whereas 90% of CEC’s posts feature other solar energy related news which are not directly related to CEC.

Vandebron have not only a great story (Rule #1) but they focus exclusively on engaging with their customers hearts by personal storytelling using the a) the Owner-Generators, b) the Staff, and c) the Customers (Rule #2).

They’ve gotten a broad spectrum of people to care about energy, simply by making energy all about people.The result, in business terms is customer value, satisfaction, acquisition and retention. And importantly, if they keep going they will one day be converting the early majority to locally generated renewable energy.

Making Energy Sexy – The Golden Rules 3 to 6 (Part 2)’  will be published next week at

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