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Energy Central Power Perspectives: The Warm Up Campaign: AESP Award-Winning Program to Provide Winter Coats to People in Need Along with Home Energy Assessments

image credit: Alex Bradley

As a part of Energy Central’s continued series interviewing winners of the 2019 Association of Energy Services Professionals (AESP) awards, first announced at the end of January, I had the privilege of speaking with Alex Bradley of C+C. Teaming up with Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the team at C+C ran the Operation Warm campaign that, in conjunction with the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, brought together the community to offer a new winter coat for someone in need for every no-cost home energy assessment the utility provided.

This unique program was successfully able to collect and distribute 600 coats to people in need this past winter, demonstrating the possibilities for utilities to engage in charity and community building. This altruistic program was a great win for all involved, so I was thrilled to be able to ask a few questions of Alex to learn more about how the campaign came about and identify how other utilities can utilize such endeavors to better their communities.

Matt Chester: Can you tell me a little background about the Warm Up Campaign by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts-- where did the idea come from and how did the program come into being?

Alex Bradley: Columbia Gas of Massachusetts approached C+C in 2016 with a challenge to come up with an idea that will help engage customers, promote our energy efficiency programs, and make a positive and meaningful impact in our communities. After much brainstorming, researching, and strategizing, C+C brought Columbia Gas a number of ideas, one of which included partnering with Operation Warm, a national non-profit organization that provides brand new coats to children in need. Columbia Gas quickly identified Operation Warm as the perfect partner – they have a shared goal of keeping their customers warm and are able to help Columbia Gas address a serious need within their communities, with 14% of children in Massachusetts living in poverty and nearly 30% throughout the Columbia Gas service territory.

And from there, Warm Up Massachusetts was born. Columbia Gas would donate one winter coat through Operation Warm for every no-cost home energy assessment a customer signed up for during the campaign period. Columbia Gas’ dedicated employees and extensive connections to their communities allowed them to work with local community action organizations and the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts to distribute coats to children in need. Following a successful inaugural campaign in 2016, more resources were dedicated to the effort in 2017, with the goal of turning it into a recurring partnership.

 

MC: What were the goals at the outset of the Warm Up Campaign and how were they achieved?

AB: Columbia Gas had three primary goals for this campaign: build awareness of, and participation in, their energy efficiency programs in the communities in which they operate; engage and provide value to their customers and communities at the ground level; and establish themselves as a resource for energy efficiency solutions. Through a multicultural, cause marketing campaign to promote Warm Up Massachusetts and drive customer awareness in energy efficiency, we were able to increase sign-ups for no-cost home energy assessments, leading to more coats donated and greater customer engagement.

 

MC: This program of providing winter coats to children in need won the achievement for customer engagement from AESP-- can you talk about how exactly the campaign played into customer engagement and what benefits Columbia Gas of Massachusetts saw from the project?

AB: Columbia Gas serves a very diverse group of communities around Massachusetts, with roughly 48% of their customers speaking a language other than English. Because of this diverse landscape, we included promotions in English, Spanish, and Portuguese in our cause marketing campaign. This campaign included a public relations effort along with print, digital, social, and outdoor advertising, resulting in extremely positive performance metrics, a 20% increase in Facebook followers, and an increase in home energy assessments.

Equally important, however, was the fact that Columbia Gas and its employees, along with local firefighters, teachers, and volunteers, were able to engage with customers face to face at coating events, helping each child go “shopping” for their favorite coat. Employees volunteered to attend each event and were able to donate hats and mittens to distribute along with the Operation Warm coats. The employee engagement aspect of the initiative added even more value to the campaign as a whole.

MC: How were you able to tie in the goal of gathering winter coats for needy children into the idea of helping families keep warm during the winter months with energy assessments? 

AB: Columbia Gas’ goal of keeping families’ homes warm in the winter, and reducing the cost of doing so through energy efficiency measures that save money and improve comfort, was a natural fit with Operation Warm’s goal of keeping kids in need warm in the winter by providing them with coats. This connection was reflected in our campaign tagline “Warm Up!” which was used in three languages and featured in all promotional materials. With the New England winter approaching, and many kids not having access to winter clothing, both services provide a huge help to families around Massachusetts.   

 

MC: Have you worked on similar campaigns for utility companies to engage their customers through these sort of charitable endeavors? If so, why do you think they're appealing and end up successful?

AB: We do quite a lot of work with charitable endeavors, and as an agency with headquarters in Seattle, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is a long-standing client. PSE and American Red Cross (ARC) have a partnership called Safe at Home aimed at helping individuals and communities throughout the Puget Sound region build their capacity to withstand, quickly adapt to, and successfully recover from disasters and emergencies. In 2016, C+C was hired to craft and implement a strategy to make the Safe at Home campaign standout and move the public from simply being aware that they need to get prepared to inspiring them to take action. C+C focused on one key tool that other preparedness campaigns were missing: putting a free emergency preparedness kit into the hands of residents.

To get the word out, C+C partnered with Seattle’s top-rated broadcaster, KING-TV. The Big Kit Giveaway events were planned at four high-traffic Lowe’s retail locations throughout the Puget Sound region. The family‐friendly event provided kits, education, and a social media corner with safety props, balloons and ice cream for kids. In all four cities, the local fire stations attended the event, offering a touch-a-truck experience and additional fire safety resources. The event was a resounding success – more than 4,000 people flocked to the four locations. This was the biggest kit giveaway in the history of Washington!

Why these charitable initiatives are so appealing is pretty simple – people like to help each other whenever they can. Especially when it’s beneficial to everyone involved. And C+C likes to work with clients that are willing to invest time and resources into helping their communities. These types of endeavors help our clients’ customers and their communities, while also helping utilities and their partners get the message out about important topics like safety and energy efficiency.

MC: Will Columbia Gas of Massachusetts be running a similar campaign for future winters? If so, were there lessons learned from this go around that can be applied to the next program or for other utilities who want to engage in similar programs?

AB: Columbia Gas is currently planning another Warm Up Massachusetts campaign for Fall 2019.  With each campaign and each coating event there are certainly lessons learned, especially from a logistical standpoint. There is no shortage of challenges involved in organizing coating events, identifying the right schools to work with, and distributing coats to large groups of elementary-aged kids, but it’s been remarkable to see how seamlessly Columbia Gas and its partners have been able to work together to make it happen. With each coating event we seem to learn how to work quicker, more efficiently, and in ways that make it more fun for the kids.

For any other utilities looking to run similar programs, I would say the keys to success are identifying the right partners to work with and allowing your employees to be as engaged as possible. Before organizing a program similar to this however, it’s important to define your goals in advance and know who your audience is, so you know what needs can be addressed. Then you can set yourself up for success and run a great program that’s beneficial to all!  



To see a full list of the AESP Energy Awards winners, see this article. To learn more about Operation Warm, check out their website here.

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