More than once, this column has urged “green” builders to sell their homes as energy-efficient, not as environmentally correct. The reason? Environmentalism is a political movement that cannot claim majority support. So when you start talking things like sustainability and carbon footprints, you risk alienating those who are not environmentalists. When you talk energy efficiency, however, you get through to a clear majority.

Then, this was only my opinion. Now, Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn., ad agency, which counts companies such as BP Solar, Cree LED Lighting, and South Carolina Electric & Gas among its clients, is out with a national survey called “Green Living Pulse” that says pretty much the same thing. It employed a sample of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers taken from an even larger survey called EarthSense, which polls more than 30,000 consumers on environmental issues. And it probed deeply into opinions and demographics on a range of products and behaviors.

Perhaps the most startling finding is that although a majority (77 percent) said it at least occasionally buys “green” products, “the environment is not their top concern, their kids are not influencing them to be green, and while many know what they should do to save the planet, they often don't do it.”

“Most green advertising is created as if there's one pool of green consumers, and they're all motivated by ‘save the planet' messaging,” says Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the agency. “Not all green consumers are the same.”

Almost three-quarters of survey respondents—72 percent—said they were interested in owning or renting an energy-efficient home, while only 47 percent said they were interested in a “green” home. When asked the most important reason to reduce energy consumption, 73 percent chose “to reduce my bills/control costs;” only 26 percent chose “to lessen my impact on the environment.” A caveat on that last point, however: The “control costs” message did not resonate among those with the strongest green attitudes and behavior. It instead alienated them. On the other hand, one respondent commented, “A green home is what a vegan would live in. An energy-efficient home is where I'd like to live.”

What this means is that one message does not fit all. Yet many home builders have slapped the green, earth-friendly label on everything they can. “That's how they're trying to mass-market the stuff, and they're wrong,” Shelton says. The phrase “‘Energy Efficient and More' is the best way to do it.”

That phrase will not alienate either the greenest or the least green among home buyers. Plus, it does not telegraph high cost. The survey found price a big stumbling block to green marketing. When asked if they agreed with the statement “green homes cost more,” agreement increased with both education and income (66 percent of college grads agreed, as did 75 percent with incomes more than $100,000. “With a house … builders are actually slapping a label on it: ‘Buy my really expensive green house.'”

Consumer interest in green homes was higher among the highly educated (59 percent of grad school graduates vs. 36 percent of those with high school or less and 47 percent overall). Interest among those with incomes of $35,000 to $49,999 (54 percent) and those with incomes more than $100,000 (55 percent) was significantly higher than those with incomes of less than $35,000 (43 percent) or $50,000 to $74,999 (41 percent).

Shelton says the most important action a home builder can take in this market is to train the sales staff. “They should know the different segments of the home-buying population, the demographics, the psychographics. They need to be able to size up their customer quickly and [determine] which script to tee up depending on which customer is in front of you.”