Cover Stories Section

Bringing Lumenhaus Into the Light

Marketing Virginia Tech’s entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon

Attending a student presentation about an innovative, solar-powered house that would be Virginia Tech’s entry for the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Solar Decathlon, Jane Machin was bowled over by the “amazing design” of the house and the “passion” of the architecture student team. She also saw, however, how much the project needed marketing communication know-how.

The Lumenhaus at night (Photograph by Robert Dunay)

It was clear from the get-go, says the assistant professor of marketing, that the students had little marketing experience. “They talked about the house from a very technical perspective—focusing totally on its functional attributes and not the end benefits to the consumer.” Furthermore, the working name of the house—“Eclipsis”—did not seem right. Suggesting a light-blocking solar eclipse, it was at odds with the main idea and benefit of the light-filled house.

Machin, who teaches marketing communications, decided to pitch in to help the students “nail down the branding” aspect of their overall communications plan. As one of 10 sub-contests in the decathlon, the plan accounts for 75 points of the 1,000-point total score. She was introduced to the project after one of her students shared her marketing class notes with an architecture-student friend who later approached Machin about providing feedback on an early draft of the plan.

Becoming deeply involved

That was two years ago. “I really did not expect at that point to get so deeply involved, to be honest,” says Machin, who became the faculty advisor of the project’s communications team. The team’s current students are Christine Burke (marketing), of Manassas, Va.; Lauren Castoro (communications), of Chester, N.J.; Marisa Ferrara (architecture), of Doylestown, Pa.; Alden Haley (architecture), of Glen Allen, Va.; Mike Payne (art), of Manassas, Va.; Dawn Roseberry (civil engineering), of Blacksburg, Va.; and Kristin Washco (architecture), of Annandale, Va. Marketing students and former team members Stacy Adamson, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Jennifer Neuville, of Loveland, Ohio, graduated in May.

The Lumenhaus in front of the National Building Museum (Photograph by Jim Stroup)

Lively, energetic meetings

The process has been time-consuming, Machin says, but the students were “a delight to work with. They were 100 percent committed. Our meetings were lively and full of energy. And they worked hard.” Activities included developing a display for a national media conference in Roanoke; organizing a raffle that raised almost $10,000; redesigning the project’s web site; and publicizing the site through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Renaming the house

A major accomplishment, Machin says, was getting a better name for the house. After a survey of the entire team showed that almost no one liked “Eclipsis,” Machin’s group embarked on a four-month search for a new moniker. Focus groups with consumers identified three key desires: “location, light, and open layout.”

Though their project house delivered on all three needs, she says: “We focused the positioning strategy on light and brightness, as this best met the consumer need and most differentiated us from the other entries. Unlike other solar houses, Lumenhaus has north and south glass walls, maximizing the owner’s exposure to natural daylight.”

A new branding strategy

After three more surveys, “Lumenhaus” emerged the winner. “Lumen,” Machin says, means “the power of light.” “Haus” not only reflects the Bauhaus movement, but also means home and house in German, she adds. The latter was key, as it resolved a major difference of opinion among the students. “The marketing majors wanted to call it ‘Lumen Home’—because consumers go home at the end of the day, not to their house. The architecture majors felt that ‘home’ was too, well, homely! Not at all capturing the modern, technical advances the house offers. ‘Haus’ was the perfect compromise.”

The Lumenhaus (Photograph by Jim Stroup)

Keeping “Eclipsis”

The team did not want to drop “Eclipsis” completely, however, she says, “because there was already some brand equity associated with it. So we branded the sliding shade screens the Eclipsis System—they are a central supporting feature of the house and do indeed block out the sun when it is not needed, which better reflected the meaning of the word.”

Redesigning the website

Another significant achievement was the redesign of the project web site. Thanks to Machin’s persuasive wooing, local design firm Modea volunteered professional assistance. Working with the team members, Modea “designed a phenomenal web site that perfectly captures the notion of ‘brighter days,’” says Machin.

Interior of the Lumenhaus (Photograph by Jim Stroup)

The project, she discovered, represented everything that she covers in class—communication plans, budgets, market research, and brand positioning. A former marketing and business development manager at Unilever, Machin says she draws extensively from her industry experience when she teaches, and did so in guiding the Lumenhaus project. “I want students to learn skills that will make them confident that they can develop a great, integrated marketing communications plan at any company they join.”

As for the architecture students she came to know, Machin says “my branding talk probably sounded like something from an alien planet to them.” But they were very receptive to new ideas, she says, and are among the “most creative, responsive, hardworking students” she has encountered.

A student perspective on marketing Lumenhaus

For marketing senior Christine Burke, the Lumenhaus project has served as an internship, giving her the opportunity to apply concepts learned in class and to work one-on-one with marketing and communications professionals. “We translated the features of a high-tech solar house into benefits for consumers,” says Burke. “We used marketing research techniques to test names that would broadcast the brand we created. We promoted our brand and generated awareness of Lumenhaus through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.”

The project has taught her a great deal, especially about online marketing techniques, she says. “Having experience working with social media will be invaluable in my job search. The Internet is a marketing tool that more companies could be using to increase business, enhance customer relations, and build their brand.”

But perhaps her favorite part of the project is “meeting new people, in person and online, from all different fields of work.” From all of them, she says, “I’ve learned not only about marketing but also about green living, architecture, technology, and public relations.”

The Virginia Tech Lumenhaus design and marketing team (Photograph by Cody Cha)
Standing (left to right): Alden Haley; Marc St. Raymond, Charles Wood, and Dylan Tarrant (of Modea); Kristin Washco; Aaron Herrington (Modea); Marisa Ferrara; Dawn Roseberry. Seated (left to right): Mansi Trivedi and Olivia Cook (Modea); Christine Burke; Jane Machin.

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