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'Obama Girl' and the Selling of Clean Energy

Brian Keane, who leads a nonprofit called Smart Power, wants to do for renewable energy what the “Got Milk?” campaign does for milk and what the “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign does for cotton -- he wants to make wind and solar and hydropower and geothermal energy really cool, and get more people to buy them. Here’s one way he is going about it, with a little help from a friend:

Pretty funny, no?

Behind that commercial is some serious market research, and smart use of social media to spread the message. I met with Brian last week in D.C. learn more about what he and Smart Power are doing. (You will soon be able to listen to a podcast of our conversation at The Energy Collective, a moderated website about energy and climate. I’m a member of their blogger board.)

Smart Power was started in 2002 with about $6 million in foundation funding, to market clean energy and energy efficiency to mainstream Americans. The problem, as Brian explains it, is this: “84 percent of Americans said they would buy clean energy but 3 percent actually do.”

Researching the best ways to talk about energy, Smart Power learned, not surprisingly, that language matters.

The phrase “alternative energy” conjures up images of hippies in log cabins and belly button rings. “Dick Cheney always talks about alternative energy,” Keane notes. ‘Nuff said.

Green isn’t much better. “Green is a very confusing word to the American public,” Keane told me. “Is it a lawn service? Is it a political party? It doesn’t convey a sense of strength and competitiveness.”

Renewable energy, an industry term, has been gaining traction but “clean, by far, is the strongest word,” Keane says. People want their homes, their environment and their energy to be clean.

Still, according to Keane, most people don’t think that clean energy works very well. If you can convince them that it works, then they don’t know where to buy it. Finally, they worry that it is too expensive or too complicated to buy.

These are real obstacles. Most readers of this blog probably know that many local utilities offer clean energy options, but I’m guessing most of you haven’t availed yourself of the choice. The cost of buying clean power varies but it’s often as little as $6 a month. As more people sign up, utilities must meet the growing demand by buying more power from renewable sources. (After Brian and I talked, I tried to sign up through Pepco, my local utility, but I was stymied because I don’t have a bill handy. Nor is he process as easy as it should be.)

Over the years, Smart Power has used traditional radio and TV campaigns to raise awareness of clean power, hired college students to go door to door explaining the process and worked with nonprofits to encourage their members to sign up. After leading regional campaigns in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, partly funded with government money, Smart Power was able to drive up buy rates for clean energy.

Now Keane is turning more often to viral marketing on Internet, and he’s found that it is a much cheaper and quicker way to reach people. Obama Girl, as she’s known, agreed to produce the “Save Energy” commercial (above) for about $5,000, and within just a few days it had attracted more than 100,000 viewers on YouTube. “It’s magic,” Keane says. “It spreads like fire.”

The America’s Greenest Campus contest that she is promoting is aimed at college students, faculty, staff and alumni. The contest, created by a partnership that includes Smart Power, the U.S. energy department and a company called Climate Culture, is a way to get colleges to compete as students and their allies reduce their collective carbon footprints between now and October. Naturally, there are pages on Facebook and MySpace promoting the contest, as well as a Twitter feed.

Smart Power used to have a traditional Madison Avenue agency on retainer for $100,000 a year. No more -- who needs an agency when you can get Obama girl?

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