What Clean Energy Can Learn From The Sara Lee Baking Company

Written by Adam James and Bracken Hendricks

Years ago, the Sara Lee baking company spent months in the lab to develop a new product that they imagined would fly off the shelves: the easy-bake cake. Mix, pour, and heat — it was simple, easy, and revolutionary. Better yet, all the trial focus groups raved about it. So Sara Lee took it to market and… well, it didn’t sell.

So they went back to the drawing board, tweaked the recipe, packaging, and brought it back to the focus groups. Again they loved it, again Sara Lee put it on the shelves, and again it wouldn’t sell.

What was the problem?

Sara Lee did not understand its market. Yes, the company was dead right that easy-bake cakes made sense for hardworking mothers. But what they didn’t understand was that moms wanted to feel like they had really given the cakes a special touch.

The solution?

Include a cracked egg in the recipe. It was easy enough to package the mix with a powdered egg, but then it just wouldn’t have that special touch. From then on, the mix flew off the shelves.

The moral of the story is that sometimes you can have a product that is smart and tailored to meet the needs of your potential customer, but if you don’t understand their preferences, you will strike out every time. Energy efficiency financing has struggled with just this marketing problem for quite some time, which is frustrating, because it makes such good sense.

Market Segmentation vs. Market Classification

The problem (along with the Sara Lee story), as it was explained by Richard Kaufmann, a senior adviser to Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is that energy efficiency advocates haven’t done enough to understand market segmentation. Sure, they understand market classification — residential single family, residential multi-family, commercial, industrial. But the range of motivating behaviors for the owners, building managers, and tenants who actually make the decisions on how and when to improve their properties within these real estate classifications has been left largely unaddressed.

For instance, within the residential classification there is a do-it-yourself segment. These people want to be involved in the project, not only cracking the egg, but baking the whole thing from scratch. The idea of someone swooping in with opaque contracting terms and retrofitting their homes is frightening. Conversely, the make-it-easy crowd wants to sign the dotted line and come home the next day to new windowpanes, and don’t want to be troubled with all the details. For them, simplicity, convenience, and a lack of disruption to their lives is key to the value proposition.

This makes a big difference when trying to match financing options for energy efficiency projects. If companies are serious about lowering customer acquisition costs, they need to learn their market segments — and learn them well. A make-it-easy client will be less interested in all the steps of the project, and so will be more likely to pay to have those things done for them. A do-it-yourself client will be inherently distrustful of financing options that cut them out of the loop.

There are many other segments too. Conservative clients (not politically, but people who aren’t early adopters) need a big name before they get interested in signing up. Independent clients who want flexible contract terms — lease rather than buy, for example. Among commercial building owners, some want to be “green” to differentiate their property within the market and some are motivated only by the cost of capital for the loan; some owners will look deeper to go for every cost effective improvement that boosts the net operating income of the property; others will place pleasing their tenants above all other concerns and only move when an anchor tenant requests an energy upgrade; and another class of owners might only consider a whole-building retrofit when they refinance or make major changes to the building.

As clean energy providers learn to better match financing and service delivery to the real needs and motivations of their customers, a similar set of questions remain in meeting the needs of investors. While the total economic opportunity of building energy retrofits remains large, the investments themselves are quite small compared to traditional real estate projects.  The potential yields of these investments are modest but very stable and, like a bond investment, an excellent hedge against inflation for institutional investors. However, entering this market today is complex and can seem risky, pushing some investors to seek higher rates of return for their capital and driving up interest rates to borrowers.

Energy efficiency still has a clear path to the top. But no matter how good the investment, these smart, economically-productive energy upgrades will not sell themselves. The real task in front of the clean energy industry is to better understand the real estate market and what motivates owners and investors.

Solving this challenge will start with finding what drives customer decisions, then using that market segmentation to get this product to scale. Regulatory solutions can help, and requirements to cut pollution and upgrade energy performance in buildings help focus owners attention. But until these consumer behavior questions are resolved by entrepreneurs and investors, the potential for energy efficiency will not be fully realized.

This post was originally published by Climate Progress.


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Photo: Reavel/flickr


Susan T.
Susan T5 years ago

Grace - I understand what you're saying but the oil and gas industry will never give more than lip service and a few token projects when it comes to alternative energy. They want to see oil and gas prices climb to never before seen heights as these resources run out, and not having any alternative is their best bet. All the infrastructure is in place or at least the industry's dirty practices are already established and tolerated. They will never, ever give this up.

Our only choice is to aggressively elect representatives who will push for alternative energy, and to continue to shine the spotlight on the large amounts of money flowing into politicians campaigns or the fake third party PACS who run ads. Until something real is done to control campaign financing we are screwed.

The simplest most obvious thing would be to follow a program like spain's which encouraged homeowners to install solar panels. It was extremely successful yet there has been no move to follow a similar program here. Why? No political will to do so - because gas and oil run Congress.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

It is NOT politically feasible in the United States to replace fossil fuel with sustainable energy WITHOUT the permission of the fossil fuel firms. And the only way to get their permission is to offer them a deal that is even MORE OBSCENELY PROFITABLE TO THEM quarter by quarter than business as usual. That will require a GIFT from the TAXPAYERS to the fossil fuel firms of enough capacity to produce sustainable energy to replace fossil fuel AND that the TAXPAYERS BUY from the fossil fuel firms ALL their remaining fossil fuel reserves. We also need to capture and store some 13,200 trillion metric tons of excess CO2 from fossil fuel either already burned or inevitable during the transition at a cost some $60 a ton to capture and $40 a tone to store in Enhanced Geothermal Systems which will produce base load power as a by-product.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B5 years ago


change twentytwelve


Michael C.
Michael C5 years ago

Ron B, You crack me up..."At least this is better than learning how to be gay from the Keebler Elves---or Madonna."

Did I see something in the news, out from Russia, that there has been an arrest warrant issued for Madonna for allegedly, "Turning Russian Youth Gay."

Bill E, As always short and to the point, a man of few words, yet they resonate wisdom. Thanks

Jennifer C.
Past Member 5 years ago


Phillipa W.
Phillipa W5 years ago


Stephanie Hungerford


Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller5 years ago

Interesting.... reminds me of the easy bake sets they made for kids...also i think people may see baking a cake and making cookies quite differently. for a cake I can see they would want an individual touch ...such as adding an egg

JT S5 years ago

Between the article and many of the comments, it's apparent that this is just a wee bit more complex than originally envisioned. That is not to say that it's insurmountable. The biggest drawbacks are the #*%@#$%#%$ red tape that bureaucracy seems to thrive on combined with the way the whole thing is presented to the potential customers.

Solutions: Find a way of getting rid of all the red tape (this, I suspect, requires working with your local townships/communities on making small but ever increasing changes, and working your way up from there), and then find the best way to market it. As for the latter, in the US at least, I suspect that Lowe's, Home Depot, et al, would be a good place to start as they tend to offer products that run the gamut withing a given field from DIY (Do It Yourself) towards DIFM (Do It For Me), and they could also make recommendations to local contractors for the people who want complete DIFM services. (A similar analogy there would be car mechanics.)