Marketing Lessons of the Proud Green Home at Serenbe

| by David Serchuk
Marketing Lessons of the Proud Green Home at Serenbe

The Proud Green Home at Serenbe, in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., is easily among the cleanest, greenest new homes constructed in the Southeast over the past several years. Its list of inviting features includes solar panels, a tight building envelope, and a ducted, mini-split HVAC system. The icing on the cake is its Home Efficiency Rating Score (HERS) of -2, meaning that, in most circumstances it should produce at least as much energy as it consumes.

The home is so efficient it was granted a rare, and prestigious, platinum EarthCraft rating by Southface, an Atlanta, Ga., non-profit dedicated to promoting sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities.

The home was completed this past August, 2013. It is 2700 square feet, and features three bedrooms, and 2 ½ baths.

Building the home created a set of complex, interesting challenges, but perhaps an even bigger challenge was presented by how to communicate this home’s special features to the buying public. How to market a green home so that its outstanding features are easily grasped?

Robert Fincher, the CEO of Sustainable Community Media, which produces, tried to get to the root of this by creating six focus groups to determine what consumers thought about how the advantages, and benefits, of green homes are currently being communicated and marketed by their builders. The answer: not too well.

“The focus groups’ answers ranged from nice try, but not very good to … a person used the word ‘dreadful,’” he said. Remember, these focus groups analyzed the marketing efforts of some of the very best green builders out there. Clearly there was a lot of work to be done.

What was wrong? Fincher said the focus groups made it clear the builders’ appeals to consumers were not nearly broad enough. Meaning not enough potential buyers really understood what made high performance homes special, how they worked, or why they should want one. “The feeling was that their marketing approaches only resonated with 15 percent of the market place,” he said. One problem: the communications from the builders were far too technical, and laden with industry jargon.

Why was this? One reason was that few of the would-be green home marketers or salespeople understood how to communicate the entire package of benefits of such a house. A typical salesperson, for example, might be able to talk about parts of the home, like insulation, or HVAC systems, but not be able to clearly, easily explain the entire home-as-a-system to consumers.

“It’s the rare salesperson who can effectively communicate how the structure of the walls, the insulation, the air sealing, the HVAC, and air-exchange strategies work together to create extraordinary, high-performance benefits to the home,” Fincher said. All these benefits, working together, are how a green, high-performance home creates lower maintenance, and a healthier environment, both immediately and over time. But most of the people who actually talk to consumers about such high-performance homes are not yet able to see the whole, green forest for the trees.

Fincher said the focus groups also experienced another problem. That is, they felt the various salespeople and builders with whom they interfaced were far too mired in presenting information from their own, traditional, point-of-view. Such industry personnel simply were not comfortable, or able, to talk about high-performance homes in a neutral, objective way.  

St. Louis, Mo., builder Matt Belcher agrees that traditional home builders and salespeople are not always great at conveying a high-performance home’s “hot points”, his term, that should appeal to potential buyers. Belcher, the principal of builder Verdatek Solutions, has specialized in building green/sustainable homes since 1993. “The technical stuff is important,” he said, “but if you can show how it (a green home) positively affects their monthly payment, helps protect their investment, prevent obsolescence, and promotes better health you will grab their attention.”

He added an additional marketing bonus for the Proud Green Home at Serenbe was the Serenbe community itself. “The improved lifestyle at Serenbe just brings tremendous additional value to the cost of the home,” he said. (Serenbe is a 1000 acre development focused on land preservation, agriculture, energy efficiency, green building, walkability, high density, building, arts and culture, and community living.)  

To convey these advantages Fincher,, and the others involved in building and marketing the Proud Green Home, took what the focus groups said to heart, and tried to creatively address their concerns.

How? They created a sort of gallery inside the actual home itself. Fincher described it as a “mash-up of a sophisticated art gallery and an Apple store.” They boiled their message down into several themes, each designed to communicate, in bite sized pieces, an advantage of this high-performance house. “This way we would communicate the advantages of that home to a broad range of people,” he said.

What were these themes? They were essentially minimalist pieces of information, or themes, artfully displayed inside the home.  These themes included: The Community Itself, The Perfect Wall, and Everything Affects Everything, among others. When potential buyers walked into the home they could walk from theme to theme, never overwhelmed by too much information. There were nine themes in total.

One particularly striking theme was the word "Impossible," written on what looked like weathered planks of wood. Only the first two letters of Impossible, the I and the M, had mostly faded away, leaving "possible."

(For more information on the nine themes you can refer to stories here, here, and here.)

The goal was to present short, effective gallery pieces to pique a viewer’s curiosity. Then, curiosity piqued, the plan was for these viewers to lead themselves through the process of discovering what each theme really meant. All this was done to lead consumers to take the initiative and learn more.

There is also a high-tech component to all this, with QR codes set up through the gallery. The codes can be scanned by a viewer’s smartphone, so that they can get more information on each theme. Again, this allows the would-be-buyer an element of self-discovery in the process.

The ideal is that viewers then become interested enough to want to speak with a salesperson, Fincher said. “In today’s world customers want to buy, but they don’t want to be sold.”   

Topics: Building Green, Cost of Ownership, GREAT GREEN HOMES, Heating & Cooling, Indoor Air Quality, Maintenance & Repair, Proud Green Home at Serenbe, Solar Power, Sustainability Trends & Statistics, Sustainable Communities

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