Category Archives: energy

Influencing consumers with chartjunk

Edward Tufte is the most brilliant American mind on visual information. He’s a design guy with a Ph.D. in political science from Yale, wrote the landmark books on graphics, has shown how the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster may have been caused by a bad PowerPoint presentation, and lives in our home town in Connecticut. Our friend Andy Jukes said once that Edward Tufte writes like the voice of God commenting on the works of humankind.

But we like Tufte best because he coined the term chartjunk.

Chartjunk is all the stuff you see in graphics that distracts you, either sloppily or deliberately, from the real data. The most common use is to present elements slightly out of scale to create a misleading point — as in the example above, in an airport sign conveying that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of an energy issue. If you really look closely at the piechart, the advocates are a slight majority — perhaps 57% to 43% — but the visual heft feels more like 3 to 1.

Advertisers of course do this all the time with other coding, such as photos showing too much sex or copy showing too much joy over products that are really commodities. You could say most humans engage in exaggeration to be more charming at parties or more employable at work. If all language is stretched, the question then is how much is too much — and if it really is an effective tool in manipulating your audience’s reaction.

Honey, call home and set the light bulbs to blue

We’ll miss you, Mr. Edison.

Old light bulbs are going out, because they use way too much juice. Home lighting eats up about 20-25% of a typical home’s electric bill, and environmental advocates and Wal-Mart are pushing new, more efficient lighting.

Yet you know those new energy-efficient fluorescents Al Gore wants you to buy are, well, a little cold. Kind of like having a mini-operating table lamp casting sterile blue-white rays over your kitchen. Sometimes the new fluorescents flicker and shudder. Ouch.

Now, NYT says the next generation of home lighting is coming, L.E.D.’s that — like a TV screen — can emit any color of the rainbow. They’re digital, they’re wired, and you can call home to reset the colors.

Imagine turning up the mood-blue lighting, or switching to yellow for sunlight warmth, or kicking back in a dark-red glow for the glass of wine on a Friday night. The future is coming. The bulbs use just a trickle of electricity. Too bad the bulbs still cost about $90 and you have to fly to Europe to get the coolest, but we hear the price and supplies are moving our way.

Philips shows off the possibilities here.

$6 gas: Are you on defense or offense?

Companies and politicians are reacting in one of two ways to the growing energy crisis — you know, the rumors of $200-a-barrel oil. Alaska is playing defense, proposing to give each state resident $100 a month for gas. GOP senators proposed $100 rebate checks for all Americans back in 2006 when gas first approached $3 a gallon, and now that it’s headed for $6 the same ideas may arise.

On the offense, Toyota just sold its 1 millionth Prius Hybrid last week, and Honda announced yesterday it would roll out four hybrid models next year.

It occurs to us that, whatever your politics, Americans will have to change their habits as energy prices spike. Our entire lifestyles are based on cheap energy: 40-mile commutes, large houses with central A/C, big-box retail stores filled with cheap goods rolled by diesel across the nation, bottled water brought in ships from Fiji. Energy has pumped up our lives like a bloated balloon, and now $6 gasoline may let some of that air out.

Forget politics. The high costs are coming. What is your business plan to deal with the changes your consumers are about to make?

Are Larry David and Segway ahead of your marketing plan?

Tomorrow your customers are going to want something different, and you probably are not ready.

The thought is sparked by Darryl at Plaid, who recently met with the founding brains of Segway to learn how and why they created a new concept for human transportation. Segway, as you know, is the funky self-balancing two-wheeled gizmo that rolls itself magically using gyroscopes and small elves inside. Segway is a perfect example of an innovation technology that is ahead of its time — meaning the masses of humanity are simply not ready to adopt it.

Hybrid cars, though, are further along the adoption curve. We all once laughed at the streamlined tin boxes; then, Larry David made the Prius look cool; now, damn, 40 MPG is looking fine. People are starting to wince at the gas pump, and we recently checked in to Honda to find that its part-electric Civic models are nearly sold out in the United States. After hybrids, American driveways are starting to fill with large but slightly efficient “crossover” vehicles, and some of us are still stuck with bloated SUVs.

The point is marketers need to anticipate adoption curves. Customers are not a static target; they are a moving, rolling mass, and the plans you begin today need to touch customers in the right position 1, 2 or 3 years from now. MP3 players are hot but may decline. Traditional theater audiences are aging and young moms are the next ticket sale. $1,000-a-month heating bills will revolutionize home efficiency. The internet has devastated traditional in-home tutoring materials. Consumers are using Google, not physician referrals, to research their own specialists.

Glance over at Segway and you’ll see it’s carefully working up the adoption curve. Marketing in the past few years focused on police and government workers. The recent social media site has an enviro-vibe, and Segway has also begun touching the mainstream with a sweet golfing model.

So: Is your marketing team thinking this way? Or do you spend your planning meetings looking in the rear-view mirror, at what once worked in the 1990s or 1980s? If you don’t look ahead at where customers are moving, you’re going to be left behind.

$6.56 a gallon gas. Get ready.

Start your engines. Goldman Sachs predicts the price of oil could reach $200 a barrel in the next two years. It was only March 2005 when Goldman got laughed off the street for a nutty analyst predicting oil would rise to $105. What a whacko, people said. Now oil is $120 and rising fast.

Even better news comes from the cheery analysts at The Economist, who note Americans still pay less for energy than back in the 1980 heyday. Right when Jimmy Carter was leaving office, the U.S. spent about 8.0% of disposable income on energy bills vs. only 6.6% today. So, pull out a calculator, and gas prices would have to hit $4.84 to just break even with the real perceived cost back in 1980.

$200 a barrel oil would work out to $6.56 a gallon gasoline.

Not sure what your business is doing to consider the economy of spring 2009, but it may be time to ask the question — what happens when consumers don’t want to travel, cut back on energy and extras, and retrench into their homes? May not happen. But then, $105 oil wasn’t supposed to happen, either.

$4.19 gas, or why Apple will design your next car

$4.19 a gallon. Today, in central Connecticut. We actually turned our SUV around, pulled over, snapped this photo — and realized, like that little corn we ignored on a foot until it struck a deep nerve, man, we have a problem.

You see, we Americans are an insular lot. Most of us couldn’t name four countries in Africa if you paid us (Egypt is in Africa, true or false?), yet the news rumblings are starting to get through. Costco is rationing rice; James Kunstler predicts peak oil will end suburban sprawl; The Economist says another 100 million people will tip into absolute poverty due to food shortages this year. When the price of bread and milk and, yes, gasoline goes through the roof, we get it.

And that means design will change.

Not design in a trivial sense; not layouts or brands or women’s clothing. We mean the design of how people live. Kunstler explains better than us that as oil supplies are tapped out, all the cheap habits based on petroleum will be squeezed away — long commutes, big-box stores filled with oranges from California, even the plastics that create the keypad on the computer in front of you.

Which means people will need new designs to structure how they live. Some marketers are ahead of the curve on this. BP rebranded beautifully a few years back as “Beyond Petroleum.” Honda has launched a hydrogen-powered car prototype that could be fueled from a home power station, circumventing the need for hydrogen gas stations on every city corner.

If your business isn’t thinking 10 years out on the designs that people will clamor for in a world of diminished energy, you are going to miss the boat.

It all reminds us of a trip to Italy years ago. We, as Americans, couldn’t believe how small the cars seemed, how elegant the shoes and phones and food; heck, ice cream had less sugar and pasta less salt. We eventually acclimated to the lean culture only to return to the States and be stunned again by the apparent bloat of American consumers — walking around in sweat pants and sneakers, drinking from oversized coffee sippy cups. For two days it was like being at recess.

But American habits are changing. The iPhone is an elegant handheld computer. The Mini Cooper has won raves for its sporty handling. People are investing in home theaters instead of going out, learning how to cook again in remodeled kitchens. McDonald’s and cinemas have responded by adding wood paneling, to say, look, we can be streamlined, too.

When gasoline hits $5 and then $6, lean will be the aesthetic of choice. The designers, like Honda, who have proven they can think ahead in new markets will be the first to capture emerging demand.

So look at new markets. Start designing lean things. Watch out for outsiders with brains who are evaluating your own industry. Because our bet is Apple will not only do music and video; soon they will be rethinking your car.