The Key to Unlocking Energy Efficiency is in the Brand

EDF Climate Corps fellow | July 13, 2011

By Jonathan Huynh, 2011 EDF Climate Corps Fellow at VivaKi, MBA Candidate at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business


As I walked around the various floors of Chicago's Leo Burnett Building, I could not help but notice posters and advertisements for a variety of familiar brands  As an EDF Climate Corps fellow at VivaKi this summer, I'm working to weave the value of energy efficiency into everyday life here just as these media and marketing agencies have weaved the value of these iconic brands into my everyday life for years.

My objective for the summer is simple: Identify and create valuable energy efficiency projects for the Leo Burnett Building. The building is a 48-story skyscraper above the Chicago River's west bank. When it was built in 1989, it was the 12th tallest structure in the city.

During my first couple of weeks, I focused on getting to know the gargantuan building better. This involved roaming the building after hours, climbing on desks to examine lighting fixtures, and surveying office spaces for energy guzzling devices.  Equipped with an arsenal of energy efficiency tools and a support network of 57 other Climate Corps fellows at leading companies across the country, I was ready to attack.

Fortunately, after discussions with my supervisor and building management, I realized most parties here were on board with investing in energy efficiency projects.  They understand the economic and intangible benefits associated with these projects and were excited about my task. For example, the property manager I met with indicated that demand for LEED certified properties in the area has risen and  tenants are constantly seeking ways to lower operating expenses.  As a global media and marketing organization, VivaKi understands the benefits of energy efficiency investments in terms of enhanced public relations, competitive positioning and employee morale.

So why did the company hire me? Turns out, VivaKi faces the same barriers that many corporations of its size and position seem to grapple with. As we learned at the EDF Climate Corps training earlier this year, the first step to overcoming barriers is identifying them. So I'm on the right track. Here's what I've found thus far:

  • There is a lack of dedicated resources focused on energy efficiency initiatives.

Although energy efficiency is on the radar for many folks, it simply loses momentum in the face of other high priority tasks.  For example it takes considerable resources to ensure that my 1.12-million-square-foot office building operates smoothly.  Elevators need to zoom from floor 1 to 48 safely, ventilation changes depending on the weather, and offices are continually rearranged.  Additionally, there tends to be no "typical" energy efficiency projects in corporations as large as this because projects need to be tailored to each building's unique office space and culture. A lighting retrofit project may work in the Leo Burnett building but not at the other VivaKi building across the street. It's needs are entirely different.  Without dedicated resources to make energy efficiency a higher priority and develop customized projects, the adoption of new programs will remain slow.

  • "Greening" the office often entails something that employees can touch and feel.

"Greening" programs such as a company recycling program or encouraging the use of reusable coffee cups are often most successful because the results are visible and obvious.  Since one can see a recycling bin pile up and a direct cost benefit from no longer purchasing disposable coffee cups, these types of programs sometimes take priority.  While these programs deserve merit and are indeed helping VivaKi become more environmentally friendly, energy efficiency projects will need similar measurable results so that employees are engaged.

  • Multi-tenant buildings create even higher coordination challenges.

It's clear that coordination challenges exist within companies to implement energy efficiency upgrades.  Employees from Finance, HR, and Facilities need to collaborate in order to make these upgrades successful while ensuring that worker productivity is not affected.  And multi-tenant buildings simply amplify these challenges.  Building-wide projects such as general lighting or HVAC improvements affect all tenants in the building, not just the tenant championing the improvement.  As such, all key tenant decision makers need to be involved. Just one dissenter can slow down the effort.


At the end of the summer, I am hoping that my work will ultimately build enough momentum to carry more energy efficiency projects forward across the entire portfolio of VivaKi agencies in Chicago.

Despite the barriers highlighted above, I am confident I will find straightforward recommendations for energy efficiency and communicate their value as effectively as the brands adorning the walls of the Leo Burnett building.  Like any successful branding effort, overcoming these barriers will require a simple message that people can relate to.  The goal of energy efficiency needs to be crystal clear: Do more with less.

EDF Climate Corps matches trained students from leading business schools with companies to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.