Your customers should understand sustainable refrigeration just enough to care

By Keilly Witman
KW Refrigerant Management Strategy LLC

The difference between mediocre communication and compelling communication lies in your message’s credibility, appeal, relevance, and distinctiveness. However, just like in refrigeration, when you fail to look at the whole picture, you wind up changing certain elements only to bring others out of whack. You lower your head pressure to save energy, but in doing so you lose heat reclaim capacity, which uses more energy, which brings you right back to square one. Similarly, in communication, overdoing it on one element, like distinctiveness, makes it harder to achieve another element, like credibility. In other words you can’t look at the pieces in isolation.

In the first three installments in this series, I addressed the challenges involved in communicating with supermarket customers about refrigeration and the environment, and I offered some simple DOs and DON’Ts for success. This article covers the factors that make some messages more compelling than others and gives some examples from the refrigeration world that can help to strengthen your communication.

I feel I have to insert a codicil here about some of the made-up marketing terms I am going to use, like believability (the extent to which people find your message to be credible) and likeability (the extent to which your message makes your brand or company more appealing to customers). Before you are tempted to make fun of me, I ask you to ponder the words “product shrinkage.” It too is a strange phrase that makes it easier to discuss a wordy concept, develop strategies to prevent it, and then measure our success. It means something very different to regular people. If you don’t make fun of me when I use the word likability, I (probably) won’t make fun of you when you talk about shrinkage.

Perhaps the most critical factor when communicating about sustainability is believability. This is where the vast majority of claims about sustainability fail. Believability doesn’t just encompass the concept of a truthful message; it also encompasses the idea of understandability and the concept of “buy in” or acceptance of your message.

There are so many “green” claims out there from every type of company that people have become cynical and distrustful of tales of environmental good deeds. We expect companies to say good things about themselves, because they are trying to sell you something.

There is a solution that cuts to the chase of this problem: Let someone else do the talking for you. The organization lauding your environmental good deeds should be seen as the ultimate independent expert in environmental issues, with no reason to exaggerate claims. In other words, it needs to be clear that the organization has no financial stake in your business. The organization must be trusted to tell the truth about your record and performance on the issues. Can you think of an organization that meets all of these criteria? That’s right: the EPA, specifically GreenChill.

The distinctiveness of your message is what grabs attention and makes an impression — it should make them say, “Wow, that’s really special.” The most common method used to make a message seem distinctive is to use words like innovative, new and improved, ultra, or version 2.0. Not only are these terms overused, they also don’t tell your consumers anything that is really useful. Just because something is innovative doesn’t mean it is better. Version 2.0 is not inherently better than the first version.

Counterintuitively, the lack of information and communication about refrigerants may actually make your job easier. Because most customers haven’t heard a lot about the subject, a message about refrigerants is going to make you stand out. And it’s fairly easy to impress people with environmental progress in this field. A good refrigeration system can have the same positive effect on climate as if the store shut off its power for the entire year. You don’t hear a claim like that everyday.

Awards are great for distinctiveness, as long as the award is from a respected and well-known organization and the award is real, important, and impressive. For instance, an environmental award from the EPA for the best refrigeration system in the nation has distinctiveness built right into it. By definition, you are the only one who can make that claim. This is another area where the GreenChill Store Certification Program and the GreenChill Partnership can be very helpful.

Awards also help with the likeability factor. But let’s face it; you don’t really have to try that hard to make sure that your environmental message increases your appeal to customers. The only way a message about environmental progress could hurt your appeal is if it inadvertently leads people to believe that it’s going to make prices go up. You’d think that this is easily avoided by telling people that your environmental achievement also saves money, but in my experience, stores never want to claim that because they imagine all their customers asking them when they are going to lower their prices.

The last factor that is crucial to a compelling message is relevance. This is a tough one because supermarket customers don’t think much about refrigeration, and supermarkets are usually happy about that. Supermarkets want customers to focus on the products they are selling. But the bottom line is that people want to do business with companies that share their values. They want to feel good about where they shop, and it makes them feel good to know that their grocery store is addressing climate change, the most pressing environmental issue of our time.

It is essential that all communication with customers be compelling. The purpose of a supermarket is to sell groceries for a profit. Everything a supermarket does needs to further that goal, including communication. Communication with customers is only worthwhile if it helps persuade supermarket customers that they should shop at your store, rather than someone else’s. You are trying to affect customers’ decisions, so your message better be compelling. If your communication is not compelling, you are wasting your money. It’s that simple. In fact, that’s probably the only thing that is really simple about compelling communication.

Keilly Witman is the owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy, a consulting firm that helps the supermarket industry manage the many strategic challenges of todays and tomorrows refrigeration world. Prior to starting her own firm, she ran the EPAs GreenChill Partnership, which grew to encompass more than 8,500 supermarkets during her tenure.

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