Speaking Sustainably

4 lessons from California drought communications campaigns

Short and Steamy San Francisco shower ad
California Public Utilities Commission
"Short and steamy" San Francisco shower ad.

When the drought of 1976-77 struck, San Franciscans turned water rations into a challenge, an adventure even, to find out just how little water they could use. Radio ads urged them to “shower with a friend” and let yellow mellow.

California is once again years into severe drought, and the water conservation communications have changed a bit. (Well, San Francisco’s still pushing the envelope.) Some initiatives, like the shower song challenge used in some cities, aim to make saving water into a game. (You pick a song each time you shower and only let the water run while it’s playing.) However, the vast majority of ads and communications I’ve found while peering in from the other side of the country don’t take that angle. Their tone: Water conservation is serious business.

Yes, managing water use in this drought is serious business. But after years of testing hundreds of ads and messages related to conservation and the environment, we know that funny or heartwarming messages cut through; dire, serious sounding messages make even green-leaning Americans put their fingers in their ears and start humming. So how can any of us  municipalities and government entities included  get our messages heard and move people along from awareness to action?

Here are a few ideas  plus some takeaways based on what’s happening in California  for successful energy and water conservation communications.

Use social sticks

In Shelton Group's client work, it has been proven time and again that, indeed, social proof is a powerful behavior change construct. We’re seeing that play out in California as well. Noteworthy here is the popular phenomenon of #droughtshaming. You call out water wasters on social media, or use apps available from cities and utilities (here’s one example) to easily submit their names, addresses and specific water-related misdeeds.

Local water agencies or municipalities follow up on select reports with warnings or, in some cases, fines. An article in the Sacramento Bee quotes Sean Bigley, government relations analyst for Roseville, about this citizen policing: “We really want people to own the drought as a community issue.”

Sacramento-area residents have reported water wasters five to 10 times more frequently than the rest of the state; in June, the region cut water use by about 35 percent. Myriad factors are at play here, but something’s working.

Drought shaming sends the message that conserving is the norm. Nobody wants to be the odd one out in their own community. This example also confirms another thing we’ve learned from Shelton Group's work: sticks are more motivating than carrots (the pain of losing money I already have is greater than the pleasure of gaining a new monetary reward).

Leverage civic pride 

“Save water to show love for your city” is a prolific theme in California right now, trickling from the statewide Save Our Water initiative down to the local level. Here’s a snapshot of one local example:

Santa Monica encourages residents to save water to show love for their city.

This angle could pack a strong emotional punch, especially with more conservative audiences, but it’s typically being executed in a straightforward, tip-focused way. California municipalities should take the opportunity to connect with people emotionally on this issue because Californians seem to have strong feelings about it.

Togetherness isn’t as motivating as you would think

We hate to say it, but there is no “we” in conservation … only an “I.” Back to all our message testing and our real-world campaign work: Messaging about the collective benefits of conservation almost never performs as well as messaging about the individual benefits. In California right now, there’s a lot of “we’re all in this together” messaging which doesn’t clearly offer a personal benefit.  

A California resident who loves green grass and relaxing showers and who doesn’t feel particularly connected to a community isn’t going to buy this “togetherness” notion. What’s in it for them? Bottom line: People respond better when they know what they’ll get, personally, from changing their behavior.

Water conservation isn’t sexy, unless you live in San Francisco

Ads urge San Franciscans to take “short and steamy” showers and “go full frontal” with an energy-efficient, front-loading washer. San Francisco’s culture historically has embraced sustainability, and residents are enthusiastically going above and beyond state mandates. This campaign captures the energy and edginess of the community it’s speaking to. Plus, it blends practical tips with attention-grabbing messages.

The basics: How to communicate effectively about conservation and sustainability

  • Inspire new behaviors. Water conservation is sinking in — but so is exhaustion from mandates, dire predictions and the same messages over and over. Make it a challenge, an adventure, to save water (or energy). Wake consumers up to new behaviors by making it personal and connecting with how they feel about this issue. Social media is a key tool here.
  • Hammer home the benefits of changing behaviors. That could include avoiding shame or fines, saving money, feeling hip or progressive and being a part of positive change or something bigger than yourself.
  • Match the local culture. Municipalities and local water districts have a great opportunity to spark excitement and inspiration by honing in on the specific barriers and motivators people have in their area.

Californians are making amazing progress toward water conservation. So much is at play in their efforts  rebates, fines, commercial and industrial water use, news coverage, local culture  but advertising and marketing messages play an important role in changing behavior. Are yours as strong as they could be?

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