Clean Energy and the Last Brand Standing

Solyndra is getting a lot of headlines, but the company’s high-profile implosion is the symptom of a renewable energy industry rationalization that has been long anticipated. It shouldn’t be a surprise or generate excessive hand wringing.

Whether it’s solar, bioenergy, power storage or any other cleantech vertical, there will be a lot of dead bodies littered across the market in the next 12 to 18 months. That is just a fact, and a natural outcome of an industry (finally) maturing.

Most importantly, it is a signal that we are moving from a period of technology innovation to one of market innovation, and therefore true mass adoption. And with mass adoption, the focus of corporate communications is necessarily shifting toward building brand credibility, loyalty, engagement and awareness.

The companies that have the strongest brand coming out of the industry consolidation cage match will be best positioned to be the last brands standing. Many executives I speak with expect only a handful of brands to survive the shake-out of each sector. The stakes are high, as brand equity has many implications: lower cost of capital, lower cost of customer acquisition, the potential to charge a premium, etc.

Brand ≠ Hype

But make no mistake, many of the companies that are perceived as having the strongest renewable energy brands today in fact do not.

Often funded by Silicon Valley investors used to the hype cycle and quick returns of media, ecommerce and high-tech companies, many of the cleantech brands now considered the darlings of their respective sectors will soon enough be dead and gone, or acquired for pennies on the dollar by existing conglomerates.

A strong brand is not just about hyping awareness, it is about delivering on your promises — to achieve business milestones, to hold up your end of a strategic channel partnership, to nurture employees, to provide a return for investors and to provide a benefit to society (economic, environmental or otherwise).

Many of today’s renewable energy brands have over-promised, and just as many if not more have under-delivered. Caveat emptor.

The Impact of China and “The Strategics”

While it is still too early to make iron-clad declarations of winners and losers, already some of the brands that will survive are starting to rise to the surface. Some of them are new, and some of them are familiar.

In the electric vehicle industry, for example, Tesla appears to have survived its start-up origins to evolve into an automotive brand with staying power, while the likes of Chevrolet and Nissan seem to have shifted laterally early enough to have carved out a future niche as well.

Similarly, multinationals in other sectors — chemicals, fuels, generation, transmission, infrastructure — are starting to play an increasingly prominent role in the looming brand wars, and may end up being the de facto renewable energy brands of the future. With market conditions buffet the renewable energy sector, many of these strategics smell good deals and are becoming more acquisitive.

At any rate, it seems fair to say that some of the ultimate brand winners will be ones we may not even know of yet, while others will belong to existing Fortune 500 companies, who buy early leaders, then apply their significant marketing muscle to enhance them further or subsume them entirely.

The other question hanging out there: where will the leading brands reside?

Given the emergence of China and Brazil as important players and the fact that the developing world is ripe for renewable energy deployment, it remains to be seen if the winning brands will be the usual suspects from Europe, the United States or Japan, or whether the companies will be based in the developing world.

Some brands from China seem poised for leadership. But will they have the foresight to invest strategically in brand enhancement on a global scale, something corporate culture there has not traditionally valued?

We will see. In the meantime, let the brand wars begin.

(This post also appeared on

marketing monday: the green, the clean and the dirty

Friend Joel Makower stirred up a good discussion last week with his article, Green Marketing Is Over. Let’s Move On. Green marketeers Suzanne Shelton and Michael Martin disagreed with him. And while I agree with Joel (I’ve made the case in the past that not only green should be pronounced dead, but so should the notion of sustainability), I don’t expect the use of either to disappear anytime soon.

However, I find it somewhat amusing that Joel is calling for the demise of green on his website, GreenBiz, that is built around the concept of promoting green. Why should green marketing be obsolete, but green media not be? And Joel also mentions that Michael and Suzanne are green marketing consultants, the implication being that they have vested interests in promoting the survival of green marketing. True. But doesn’t GreenBiz also have a consulting arm focused on… helping companies become more green? Hmmm.

Mind you, as a marketer myself of “clean” – as in cleantech, clean energy and the clean economy – I’m not exempt from scrutiny (as I have pointed out in the past, there is no such thing as clean anything when you take a closer look. After all, everything we make requires the consumption of something, including EV batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, etc). Matt Ridley recently wrote a provocative post on this subject, which seems accurate and misguided at the same time. Accurate in that renewables are not strictly renewable if you look at their entire supply chain. Misguided in the assumption that there is an apple to apples comparison between fossil fuels and renewables (can you say “externalities”?).

So what’s the takeaway for me? We can all make the subject moot if products that have a smaller ecological impact 1) cost less, 2) are easy to use and 3) work well. Ultimately, that’s a function of innovative marketing that can help scale market demand, but more importantly innovation in financing, policy and product development. Green only becomes obsolete when there is no need to distinguish from the alternatives on price, efficacy and reliability.

Cleantech Policy Needs Clarity, Consistency and Cojones

EarthTechling recently interviewed me and asked for my perspective on trends in cleantech, including marketing, communications and PR. Some themes that emerged:

  • Five suggestions for cleantech companies to set themselves apart in a crowded market
  • Backing “boring” businesses usually works
  • Technology innovation we have plenty off; we need marketing, financing and business innovation (plus the 3Cs from energy policymakers – clarity, consistency and cojones

See the full interview

marketing monday: the distributed brand

As someone who consults on communications and engagement for the Distributed Energy industry, it is clear that the future of communications is The Distributed Brand. Recent research from one of firm Weber Shandwick’s sister agencies, Universal McCann, backs this up. According to their Wave 5 – the Socialization of Brands study, findings included:

a company’s branded website as a destination for consumers is dropping – from 85% to 75% over the past three years – with more attention going to social platforms and mobile applications.

globally, nearly half of active internet users claim to have joined a brand community. Many join such a community to gain access to free content (69.6%), but the higher motivations are to learn (78.6%) and to get access to advance news of products (76.1%). In other words, people was first access to news and information.

of those joining a brand community, 72% said they thought more positively of the brand as a result, 71% said they are more likely to buy the brand, 66% said they felt more loyal to the brand and 63% said they recommended others to join.

At the same time, as someone who came out of the content creation business (I previously produced feature-length films, launched a magazine and newsletter, and worked as a journalist) it is also clear that one of the most important ways to become a distributed brand is to be a great content creator or co-creator, and to use that creation as a means of engaging communities. If you’re interested, some insights on this trend. My favorite: “the Chief Content Officer will be the CMO of the future.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but certainly the role of content and how to socialize it is making The Distributed Brand a shift that cannot be ignored.

Characteristics of Distributed Energy that can be applied to the Distributed Brand:

Both are about getting a solution to the point of use

Both are smaller scale and modular

Both are about peer to peer or many to many, not one to many

Both allow integration of other ancillary applications

marketing monday: resilience – the new sustainability

I’ve already made my argument that ”sustainability” and “green” are obsolete terms, and over the last year there appears to be growing mainstream momentum (it originated out of the systems design community) around the term “resilience” as a possible successor. One voice on the subject is Dennis L. Meadows, author of The Limits of Growth. In a recent interview with Pictures of the Future, Meadows made the following argument:

In my opinion [sustainable development] is an oxymoron, a term with nonsense meaning. To many people,”development” seems to imply that we can simply keep going as we have for the last 100 years, depleting resources on a large scale and polluting heavily. And adding some kind of “sustainability” makes the detrimental effects of our model of development go away. I am more interested in the term “resilience”. This concept is about how to structure a company or a city or a country so that it can continue to function quite well even in the face of major shocks. Implementing policies that give you resilience tends to make the system more sustainable.

Meadows went on to equate the coming environmental crisis with the current financial crisis, saying that he expects to see similar systemic problems. He said behavioral change is the most important factor in preventing these problems, combined with the tools of technology to realize those changes.

Like the financial crisis, climate change or energy scarcity are not going to proceed in a nice orderly, uniform way. Sometime in the foreseeable future there will be discontinuities, which will put us in a mode of crisis… to prepare ourselves the most important thing is to increase our time horizon.

The leading proponent of the resilience concept has been Jamais Cascio, an “ethical futurist” based in the San Francisco area, who points out the two reasons why resilience is gaining traction: 1. the future is inherently uncertain and 2. failures happen, so the OS of humanity needs to be flexible and self-aware enough to identify failures early and adapt accordingly. He adds that resilience implies two characteristics needed to do that: strength and flexibility.

One reason why the idea of resilience resonates with those of us 
engaged in foresight work is that, as troubling as it may be to 
contemplate, the current massive economic downturn is likely to be 
neither the only nor the biggest crisis we face over the next few 
decades. The need to shift quickly away from fossil fuels (for both 
environmental and supply reasons) may be as big a shock as today’s 
”econalypse,” and could easily be compounded by accelerating problems caused by global warming.

A number of organizations exist to explore the possibilities for resilience as a new social meme, including the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University. Others have emerged in South America and Europe

‘Best of’ lists: room to be better

Companies are always happy to be included in “best of” media lists for energy and cleantech. And many of them, in my opinion, are deservedly included. But I’m just one opinion. The media supposedly represents a more informed opinion. So I was curious how these lists are compiled.  Is the selection process scientific? Do the lists reflect common wisdom or is it totally random? Is there a herd mentality? Or maybe it’s based on relationships? I decided to see if there is any rhyme or reason to the various selection methodologies and the results. After all, there are hundreds of innovative cleantech companies out there doing thousands of amazing things. Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, Greentech Media, Businessweek/Bloomberg and other media groups have all come forth with lists. I should say up front that I am friends with many of the people who compiled these lists, and I’m even a sometimes contributor to Greentech Media. You might think that as the head of the cleantech practice at a large communications firm that I would want to shy away from razzing them. But then you wouldn’t know me very well. So first things first: here’s a list of selection criteria for several of the lists, starting with the funniest and ending with the driest.

  • Greentech Media: Methodology:  We spread the names of 500 VC-funded firms on the Greentech Media dance floor and cut the head off of a chicken. Wherever the chicken landed – that was a winner. We stopped when we ran out of chickens.
  • Bloomberg / Businessweek: Our criteria: These picks are starting to gain traction with real, innovative products and services for sale, they are not yet publicly listed, they are not yet household names, and all have bona fide venture capital backing and other high-profile investors.
  • Fast Company: Apparently there isn’t a methodology (at least not one that I could find). But some of the language in the issue gives a vague hint at what’s important: “surprising and extraordinary efforts” and “each company… illustrates the power and potential of innovative ideas and creative execution”.
  • Wall Street Journal: A team from research firm Dow Jones VentureSource (owned by Dow Jones & Company, publisher of the Journal) calculated the rankings, applying a set of financial criteria to some 350 U.S.-based venture-backed businesses in clean technology valued at less than $1 billion. Companies that make everything from fuel cell technologies to carbon-management software were analyzed according to four financial criteria: the track records of success for both a company’s founders and management; track records for the investors on its board; the amount of capital raised in the last three years; and the percentage change in a company’s valuation in the 12 months ended Nov. 30. Dow Jones reporters and editors who cover the venture capital industry also provided their perspective and expertise beyond the numbers.

A few conclusions:

  • There is a wide divergence in opinion. When you cross-reference the four lists, only Silver Spring Networks appears on all lists. Only two companies appear on three of the lists: eMeter (a client of my company Weber Shandwick) and Solyndra. A corollary is that definitions of cleantech vary (and are not clearly defined by the media in question). For example companies like Recycle Bank (which were named) are great companies, but are they strictly tech products or services?
  • There appears to be a common assumption that success in raising money from VCs and the “caliber” of those VCs equates to successful business. Tell that to the nine out of 10 VC-backed companies that fail.
  • There is an element of the subjective to all lists (aka “expertise beyond the numbers”), which means that personal relationships with the “deciders” matter.
  • “Innovation” appears to be a common factor in selection as well, but none of the media define what the term means, further contributing to the subjectivity of it all.
  • The Wall Street Journal has the most rigorous process. What’s interesting though is that many of the people I know in cleantech (investors, entrepreneurs, etc) scratch their head at some of companies chosen by WSJ.

Final thought: in a world where consumers of media are also increasingly content producers, why aren’t media tapping into the collective wisdom of the cleantech/energy crowd to help identify the true leaders, as well as vote on them? Recognition by peers is much more valuable to a business than recognition by media.

marketing monday: it’s all about the bennies

The State of Green Business (SoGB) report for 2010 has been released, and as always it dedicates a section to marketing. The basic take-away from this year’s installment was not surprising. Number one, that there is a “great chasm of ignorance” on the part of US consumers around green terminology. And number two, that marketing green to consumers has to be built around this simple truth: they “want products that aren’t just greener, but better – that offer some kind of personal benefit, whether they’re cheaper to buy or own, have enhanced features or higher performance, are more convenient, less wasteful, healthier for their families, or simply cool”.

In other words: people are self-interested.

The full section is excerpted below:

It stands to reason that during a recession — with high unemployment, job insecurity and a dramatic upswing in foreclosures and bankruptcies — shoppers would stick to basics: tried-and-true, affordable products. If so, that would be bad news for most green products, with their unfamiliar brands and often premium prices.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading the polls. A succession of market research surveys during 2009 seemed gushingly optimistic about consumers’ willingness to embrace green shopping. Example: Four out of five people said they were still buying green products and services, even in the midst of the recession, according to a study by Opinion Research Corp. Another found that shoppers from São Paolo to Shanghai were ready to shell out more cash for eco-friendly products, even as the recession ate into their buying power. Indeed, a handful of surveys even claimed that consumers were willing to pay more for green products.

What in the name of Al Gore is going on?

It’s a complicated question, to be sure. Consumers, say the experts, are continuing to make green choices, but they’re being pickier than ever about doing so. As a result, green marketing, always a challenging proposition, has become all the more challenging.

One thing seems clear: Premium pricing for green is a non-starter for most shoppers. That’s expected when people are pinching pennies, euros and yen. And consumers’ willingness to make green choices seems more likely when there’s a personal benefit in addition to a planetary one. As such, there’s a growing appetite for products that can cut utility bills, like energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.

Even still, there remains a great chasm of ignorance — “radical transparency” notwithstanding — that’s keeping consumers dazed and confused when they shop, and more than likely is tamping down interest in green purchases.

For example, one study found that while most consumers view “energy efficiency,” “smart energy” and “energy conservation” as positive concepts, few fully understand what those and other energy-related terms actually mean. Another survey found more Americans buying energy-efficient light bulbs, but the majority remain in the dark about the federally mandated phaseout of incandescent bulbs that starts in two years.

And then there’s the Snackwells Effect, named after the Nabisco cookies that are marketed as diet foods, being lower in fat or sugar than regular cookies. Studies found that people offset those low-cal benefits simply by eating more of the cookies — after all, they’re “healthier,” right? Similarly, studies have found that people lose 5 percent to 12 percent of the expected energy savings from efficient light bulbs because they leave them on longer, and 10 percent to 30 percent of the savings of efficient furnaces because they raise the thermostat. After all, they’re more efficient, right?

All of this has made green marketing far more perplexing than most marketers bargained for, requiring more complex and nuanced messages and value propositions. In reality, the proposition is probably rather simple: Consumers want products that aren’t just greener, but better — that offer some kind of personal benefit, whether they’re cheaper to buy or own, have enhanced features or higher performance, are more convenient, less wasteful, healthier for their families, or simply cool.

That message was driven home by analysts at GfK Roper, which for years has conducted regular “Green Gauge” consumer surveys. “What’s interesting is that when you look at and compare some of the attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. to other developed markets, the U.S. is actually more like a developing market in terms of the way they think and behave green,” Tim Kenyon, GfK Roper senior market analyst, told “In a developing economy, there’s much more of a personal self-interest involved in making green purchasing choices, and less emphasis on the greater good,” similar to what Roper was seeing in the U.S.

American consumers, it seems, may have more in common with their counterparts in Chad, Chile and China than one might ever have imagined.

Will the next Ray Anderson please stand up?

I had the pleasure of hearing Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, at the recent Clean-tech Investor Summit. It’s always nice to get re-invigorated by a person who not only inspires through his efforts to create a better world, but who is also a great communicator. Ray is certainly both. After the event, friend Joel Makower and I were wondering out loud if there were any CEOs out there besides Ray who brought with them the same level of inspired thinking and concrete action in the realm of sustainability and cleantech. They are no doubt out there. I have some of my own thoughts, but I want your suggestions. I’m not looking for consultants (I’ve got nothing against them, being one myself). So to be clear: I’m looking for men and women who are on the frontlines of running big business who 1. are pushing the envelope when it comes to innovating through sustainability and 2. who are charismatic conveyors of how they are doing it. I think Bill Gates (albeit no longer a CEO), took himself out the running with his insulation is stupid rant this past week.

Feel free to comment here or make a suggestion on Twitter to @mrcleantech


Roundup: Cleantech Predictions for 2010

Based on the rash of predictions for cleantech in 2010 from investors, consultants and media (see the full list at the end of this post), I’ve pulled together a “trend of trends” list below that attempts to synthesis the broader, over-arching themes. As always, I’m amazed that water isn’t on the top of every list, every year, although there are some positive signs on that front. So here are the 12 things that filtered to the top:

  • Energy efficiency will have a big year, with buildings and information and communications technology (ICT) front and center (nice to see the “wow” factor over technologies like solar being tempered by the realization that there are a lot of cheaper ways to meet immediate goals for reducing emissions)
  • Private investment will revive (with one prediction for a record-breaking year), but fears persist that the pending end of stimulus dollars will cast a long shadow over the market
  • Differentiation – i.e. marketing – will increase in importance as we move from a technology-heavy phase to a commercialization-focused phase (something I’ve called attention to in the past).
  • Consolidation and industry shake-out will accelerate, as will increased involvement of major corporates. Many VC-backed firms need an exit (especially in smart grid, solar and biofuels), so expect a few IPOs, but mostly M&A or failure as scale becomes more important and winners and losers emerge. And as the market grows and the issues being addressed become more complex, big multinationals with vested interests will try to play a larger role
  • Smarter transportation – especially electrified – continues to gain traction, while next generation liquid fuels (cellulosic in particular) takes baby steps
  • It’s more than energy, stupid. Land, water, rare earth metals, etc take more mind share as understanding grows  that the issues we face go beyond energy and carbon
  • Importance of carbon measurement and management will increase, but folks seems pretty skeptical that even if climate legislation/treaties get enacted that they will be aggressive enough (some expect sector specific carbon regulation – i.e. aviation and shipping – instead of economy-wide measure
  • Distributed solutions continue to erode the power of centralized systems (in energy generation, building, transportation, etc)
  • Some technologies expected to garner attention: Waste to energy, waste biomass, power storage, geothermal, aquaculture, ultracapacitors, desalinization, building materials, large-scale solar
  • There is a lot of expectation around advancements and interest in upgrading the electric grid; although there was a warning to expect at least one major failure of a smart grid rollout (not to mention that people have been predicting an intelligent grid for many years)
  • Standards gain a higher profile – whether building codes, water or carbon labeling, unified standards for the smart grid, etc, creating a clear marked playing field grows in importance, including communicating the rules to consumers as needed
  • International competition to be the cleantech leader intensifies (again this is something I’ve written about in the past, so not really news in my opinion)

If you want to read for yourself, the various predictions I’ve pulled from are here: Energy stocks to watch from Seeking Alpha; Overall industry outlook from the Cleantech Group; Clean energy predictions from Deloitte; Two different VC perspectives, one from Lightspeed Venture Partners  and the other from Rob Day at Black Coral;  5 biggest hurdles from Earth2Tech; IT and corporate green from Greenmonk’s Tom Raftery; Green building trends from Earth2Tech;  Top 10 promises from cleantech companies from Cleantech Group; Smart grid from Earth2Tech.

marketing monday: 6 tips for marketing in the clean economy

Technologies and services that reduce natural resource consumption and emissions are the future of global growth, as well as the pathway to climate stabilization. In China alone, expectations are for a $1 trillion annual “cleantech” market by 2013.

We are now entering a transition phase in cleantech, with focus shifting from technology to market commercialization. The winning technologies will win in large part because of marketing and communications. In the case of cleantech, it’s not enough as a marketer to be a good practitioner of marketing.

In a world of ever increasing sophistication and specialization, in-depth knowledge of key drivers is essential to success. That means a deep understanding of underlying technology, cultural perceptions, policy, and consumer and enterprise behavior.

Moreover, there is interconnectedness in cleantech that does not exist in other areas of the economy, which requires maintaining unusually high levels of visibility into multiple vertical industries. Here are six keys to success:

1. Think systems. One of the unique things about cleantech is that you can’t effectively talk about what you’re doing in a silo. It is all inter-related. If you do power storage, it relates to renewable energy and smart grid. If you do water, it’s connected to energy. If you do biofuels, it impacts food, water and energy. Your point of view must be developed accordingly.

2. Market the solution, not the problem. There is enough fatigue out there already about the environmental problems we face. Be a face for the solution.

3. Be specific. Talking about “green jobs” or “renewable energy” is no longer enough and audiences are growing more skeptical about “greenwashing.” Talk about “wind energy jobs” or “solar power.” The more detail you provide, the more believable you become.

4. Drive sales by focusing on your customers’ strategic priority. While it may be tempting to lead with the environmental benefits of your product or service, our research shows that compliance and cost/ROI take precedence. Take time to research your customers and understand their primary motivations. You can adapt your message (and channels of communication) accordingly and be far more impactful.

5. Be a policy wonk. Perhaps more than any other space, cleantech requires that you have your finger on the pulse of policy. Whether you are in clean energy, water, smart grid, biofuels or transportation – national and international policy will play a major role. Ignore engagement with policy-makers at your peril.

6. Go digital. Communications have moved online. Social media is the new currency. Find compelling content that can mobilize online communities and get traction for your brand. Ad spend and press releases are becoming less and less effective as the role of online search takes stories directly to individuals at the touch of a button. It can be very cost effective, too.

This first appeared in MediaPost’s Marketing: green newsletter