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.

EV to be Most Hyped News of 2011: Survey

Media covering renewable energy and cleantech overwhelmingly expect the biggest news hype of 2011 to come from electric transportation, while they identified energy efficiency as the most deserving of coverage, according to my annual survey. With more than 70 respondents from newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and blogs, the survey also revealed that more than two-thirds of media expect demand for cleantech coverage to be greater this year.

The survey strongly confirmed one trend – the migration of content online; and appeared to shoot down another – lack of adequate budget. Nearly all of the respondents – 96% – said their work will primarily appear online, while almost 70% said that they would have enough resources to do a good job of reporting on cleantech this year. At the same time, there is a willingness to use content (video, animation, graphics, etc) produced by non-media sources (73% said they frequently or sometimes used content developed by companies).

In addition, the survey revealed some social media habits with regard to obtaining information, with Twitter (82%) by far and away the top choice of social tools for tracking news.  The RSS feed is also clearly not dead, with 57% naming it as the second tool of choice.

EV received 56% of the votes to be the most hyped sector in 2011, more than double the nearest competitor – smart grid, which received 20% of the votes. The only other technology that registered double-digit percentages was carbon capture and sequestration (16%).  On the flip side, media identified energy efficiency as the area that deserved the most media attention, with 42% choosing EE. This is ironic since I’ve often heard reporters say that they want to cover energy efficiency, but editors find it too boring (this is backed up by page views). The other technologies deserving attention mentioned by  more than 10% of respondents were: carbon management (20%); solar (13%); smart grid (13%) and water (11%). One of the most important sectors from an impact perspective, agriculture and foresty, got no votes.

As in previous years, the overwhelming majority of those surveyed (68%) said B2B coverage would take priority this year, with the remainder paying more attention to consumer technologies. Overall, the overall trend is also of continued interest in the sector – 62% expected increased demand for cleantech news among audiences

Interest in policy coverage also remains high, with nearly 80% expressing significant or moderate interest in tracking government developments.

High Noon for US Clean Energy Leadership: March 21, 2011

A wise man once said that contemporary politics is fueled by two things: raising money, and a fear of angry mobs. OK, I actually said that. Nevertheless, it makes sense that the ultimate nightmare for DC lawmakers would be an angry mob with money. At the Renewable Energy Finance Forum-West this week in San Francisco, a gathering of top financiers, project developers, executives, etc, it was clear that there are a lot of angry and frustrated American businesspeople with money who are sick and tired of Washington’s refusal to treat renewable energy and cleantech as THE pillar of our future economic growth (not to mention a solution to our increasingly resource-constrained world). Not surprisingly during REFF, Beijing’s aggressive moves to become the cleantech power were repeatedly contrasted against DC’s cowardice and failure to act. Yet, so far the efforts to change the situation in DC by the broader clean energy business community have added up to only a sliver of the lobbying dollars spent by Big Oil and Coal, plus the occasional pilgrimage to DC by a few handfuls of business leaders to implore action (and increasingly that requested action is just short-term fixes, not long-term solutions). So with Solar Power International just around the corner; with WindPower coming up in May 2011; I have a question for Rhone Resch and for Denise Bode. Why are you gathering your mobs with money in Los Angeles?

Perhaps what’s not needed is the current drip campaign, nor “constructive engagement” with the representatives in DC, but blunt force trauma. Congress, and especially the Senate, needs to be convinced that the clean economy interest group is just as powerful as the fossil fuel lobby, with the money to back up its talk. Congress also needs to viscerally feel that the clean economy is a money-making, tax-generating, vote-swaying reality. So I have two specific calls to action for the renewable energy industry.

  1. For the next 3 years, EVERY major trade show for every sector of clean energy – solar, wind, geothermal, power storage, smart grid (thanks Gridwise Alliance Forum for being in DC already), should take place in Washington, D.C. Seeing is believing. If Solar Power’s 50,000 delegates, Windpower’s 25,000 delegates and other similar numbers descended on DC every year and disrupted Congressional limos, lawmakers might pay more attention.
  2. That 1,000,000 business people – employers and employees (present and future) – from the clean energy industry descend on the Capitol Building on March 21, 2011, and show the power and confidence of the new “industrial evolution”. Not NGOs, not lobbyists, but the real deal – CEOs, CFOs, installers, retrofitters, you name it. If we need a sea change in US energy policy, let’s put a sea of angry people with money at the doorstep of those failing to act.

Jeff Immelt of GE: you called Congress “stupid” because of it’s failed energy and climate policy. Will you sign on?

Jim Rogers of Duke Energy: you’ve argued that the most energy efficient economy will be the leader of the 21st century. Will you sign on?

Bill Gates: you want billions of dollars more investment in clean energy R&D. Sign up.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times: you clearly have a bee in your bonnet on this topic. Will you show up?

Being an optimist, I have already created an event page on Facebook, called the Million Business Voices for a Clean Energy Economy and another on LinkedIn. If there are at least 10,000 people signed up before October 10, this thing might have a chance. So spread the word.

‘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.

Peer-Reviewed Cleantech Journal Launches

The Cleantech Law & Business Review has officially launched with the release of its first quarterly issue. The goal of the Review is to accelerate cleantech commercialization by addressing a current deficiency in the sector: the absence of a forum that has the ability to look holistically, and through expert eyes, at the opportunities and challenges of cleantech.

The journal will be peer reviewed (the first such publication in cleantech) and solicit contributions from business, academic, policy and legal experts to address the most topical and strategic issues facing cleantech commercialization today.

“We want people to start thinking more laterally, not in silos… because a one dimensional approach is a non-starter,” says managing editor Bill Pentland. “Understanding the problems is something that will determine the success of the solutions, and that requires a systems approach.”

Existing cleantech publications are doing a good job of reporting on specific solutions. The Review hopes to take all of the pieces and fit them together. The publication will be supported by sponsorship and subscriptions. The inaugural issues was built around the theme of carbon offsets. Other issues this year will focus on water, renewable energy and climate change.

Cleantech Media Survey: 2009 is Policy, Blog Year

Media covering cleantech expect to pay significant attention to policy in 2009 and they also have declared it the year of blogging and video, according to results of my first Annual Cleantech Media Survey released today. With an Obama administration set to take office and the next president’s commitment to end oil dependence and address climate change, 77% of those surveyed said they expect media to place “significant” emphasis on policy-related cleantech coverage, with the remainder saying policy coverage would be “moderate”. In addition, the survey of more than 100 media – leading blogs as well as mainstream newspapers, magazines and broadcasters – revealed that roughly three-quarters expect to see growing demand for cleantech sector news (from both readers and editors) this year compared to 2008.

Solar will remain king of the renewables. Two-thirds of those surveyed named solar as the renewable energy source to be most covered in 2009, with wind and next generation biofuels coming in a distant tie for second at 15% each. And of note, media expect energy efficiency – long a tough sell to editors and readers – to be the top non-renewables cleantech story for 2009, with 40% naming it their top choice. Carbon market and related technologies was second at 25%, with EVs and industry consolidation coming in at 17% and 15%, respectively.

As far as delivery of cleantech news, a majority of survey participants – nearly 60% – said blogs would be the key tool to tell the cleantech story in 2009, with video garnering one-fifth of the vote (Twitter, podcasts and slideshows also received mention). Concerning to the overall state of cleantech media, a total of 62% of those surveyed expect new media to continue to grow and traditional media to continue to shrink, or for new media to take market share from traditional media. A quarter had a balanced POV, expecting both new and traditional media to look for mutually beneficial distribution relationships.

Among the respondents, there is little consensus on the major untold story for 2009. Categories that received multiple votes included efficiency (including smart grid, building energy use and demand response), coal, power storage and cleantech as the engine for economic recovery. Others receiving votes included CleanNano, bioplastics, the Mideast as solar mecca, urban windmills and water as the next “peak” story, Several media also expect the main untold story to be a negative one – examples included: realization of how long it will take for renewables to become more than a rounding error in the energy diet; new forms of greenwash as companies scramble for Obama dollars, and how solar PV and hybrid cars will contribute nothing significant to cutting GHG.

Some reporters and organizations have done their own stand-alone predictions for the new year. Kerry Dolan of Forbes, for example, predicts that the grid will be big in 2009, and that solar will continue to soar. American Wind Energy Association also did their predictions for wind in 2009, Jetson Green offered up seven trends to expect in 2009 and Greener Buildings offered up their forecast as well.

If you’ve seen other media forecasts for 2009, please add them to the Comments section of this post.

‘Green’, ‘Carbon Footprint’ Make Banished Word List

It’s official… sort of. According to the 34th annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness just released by Lake Superior State University, “green” and “going green” topped the most villainous terms of 2008 (other green themed expressions submitted included “building green”, “greening”, “green technology” and “green solutions”). Close behind was “carbon footprint” and “carbon offsetting”. The survey certainly isn’t the most scientific, but it was based on thousands of nominations from all over the country. Makes me wonder if the organizers of the “Green Inaugural Ball” taking place on the eve of the Obama presidency have time to make a name change. Perhaps they could call it the “Gangrene Inaugural Ball”? Also makes me wonder if media that have embraced green in their branding – i.e. GreenBiz, New York Times’ Green Inc.Greentech MediaGreenbang, Always On Going GreenFortune Brainstorm: GREEN, etc – need a rethink as well. My favorite pull-quote from the LSSU survey came from a man in Bristow, VA:

“If I see one more corporation declare itself ‘green’, I’m going to start burning tires in my backyard”. – Ed Hardiman

Fair warning. But Ed, make sure it’s a green tire.

Special Green Issues Endangered

MediaWeek reported this week that interest from media properties to put out stand-alone green issues is waning in the current economy. So far the list of titles to do away with green issues in 2009 includes Domino, Discover, Sunset and Outside, according to the article. But the sub-text of the story, for me at least, is less about the economic factors involved behind the decision, and more about the growing sense that green no longer needs its own bully pulpit. Beth Brenner, an executive at Discover, is quoted as saying that advertisers don’t need a green-themed issue to tell their story, noting: ““They’ve made it a part of their everyday messaging.”  Which takes me back to a post I made in May of this year about theDiscoloration of Green. It makes the case for an end to green as a separate topic, and for the start of green as an integrated thread woven throughout the fabric of business and policy.

Cleantech Media Shift Continues

CNN and Fortune’s loss is the blogosphere’s gain. Recent news that CNN let go of Miles O’Brien and Peter Dykstra and did away with its environmental/science core production unit, as well as Sam Whitmore’s report that Fortune laid off two cleantech mainstays (and accomplished bloggers) - Todd Woody and Marc Gunther - is just another sign of the times: Mainstream Journalism 0, New Journalism 42. If true, I’m bummed for my friends who lost their jobs, but I’m also very excited for them (as a former foreign correspondent and blogger myself) because these are exciting times. We are on the cusp of the creation of a new media world that is the intersection of industry expertise, technology know-how and changing news consumption habits. Declining audience for traditional media is inversely proportional to increasing audience for new media like blogs, video and aggregator sites. Whoever you believe, the numbers are there to back it up – eMarketer says 94.1 million blog readers in 2007, comScore says total Internet audience of 188.9 million or Universal McCann, which says 346 million worldwide read blogs (60.3 million in the US). No doubt blog-savvy folks likeAndrew Revkin (NYT DotEarth) and Jeff Ball and Keith Johnson (Economic Capital at WSJ) will continue to thrive (well, almost no doubt). Its clear that mainstream media is trying to shift to meet the challenge. John Byrne of Businessweek wrote on Twitter this week that Businessweek.com had 722,567 video streams in November, up 370% from the same month in 2007. That’s good news. But even if they aren’t successful, others that are more nimble and able to get their minds around the dynamics of social media (think Greener World Media Greentech Media and Earth2Tech) should be able to fill the void being created by the retrenchment at traditional media. And at the end of the day, Gunther and Woody still have their own brands that they created through their own blogs, and their survival is not dependent on a bloated mother ship.

The Discoloration of Green

Last year, I said that a time would come when the term “green” would fall into disuse. I’m now wondering if that time is nearer than I originally thought. I’m already sensing some fatigue from friends in the media. At the consumer level it’s also more pronounced (depending on the day, search for “green fatigue” on a leading search engine bring back 500,000 to over 1 million results). Ironically, at the recently concluded Fortune Brainstorm: Green event, Andrew Shapiro of Green Order said that it felt as if 2008 would be the “apex of green”. Which of course begs the question: How steep is the downward slope in 2009? Ted Nordhaus (who coincidentally was my childhood neighbor growing up in the southeast quadrant of Washington, DC, back when we both had hair) and his cohort Michael Shellenberger, in 2004 shook up the establishment with their paper called “Death of Environmentalism“. They succeeded in pounding the final nail in that coffin. Now green’s utility is in question and it is even being challenged by another color – “blue”. Sustainability advocate Adam Werbach is now selling blue as the next step beyond green, arguing that blue is more accessible because it, in effect, means having your cake and eating it too (I’ve tried that, by the way, and I keep biting my hand by mistake). But really, green or blue, aren’t we just creating another arbitrary label that will also fade away with time? Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for “blue fatigue”, when the next Adam Werbach comes along and pronounces the blue movement dead, and argues that its time for chartreuse to have a turn? Not to mention the fact that people in the developing world (I spent 16 consecutive years in China from 1987-2003 so I have some credibility) have just started the Long March to consumerism and couldn’t really give a damn about green or blue, unless its related to the color of their new car or the tile in their newly renovated, air-conditioned kitchen.

I moved into technology because public capital markets (and human activity more generally) are driven by short-term interest and unsustainable growth. Facing a powerful system backed by powerful inertia, it was my conclusion that fundamental change to our behavior around consumption/growth is highly unlikely to happen (to the degree or within the timeframe needed) to address the ecological problems we face. That POV was largely informed by my time in China, where I watched stock markets open, bans on advertising lifted, private cars allowed back on the roads and consumerism return with a vengeance. I witnessed China’s boom and how it raised a lot of people out of poverty. The problem is that we can’t raise the remaining 1 billion Chinese out of poverty without totally screwing ourselves and the ecology. And China is just the start - Brazil, India and the rest of the developing world are going through the same transformation. Far be it for me to deny others the chance to live lives of comfort. But it is highly naïve to assume that individual Chinese or Indians or Brazilians will have the foresight to look beyond their drive to material comfort and make decisions on how they live based on a moral responsibility for the health of the planet. The West didn’t. It just won’t happen (no offense Bill McKibben, whose conclusion for our generation – that more is not better – ignores the fact that its mainly people who know wealth who have room to think about less). Only when people are so afraid of the ramifications of climate change or toxic sludge seeping out of their water taps will they be motivated to change behavior (as recent events in Juneau underscored). But of course, by then it will be too late.

So my bet for overcoming the challenges is technology, broadly defined. The way I see it, technology is the layer buffering natural resources from consumer and corporate behavior. It allows consumers to continue to behave much as they do and it allows natural resources to get a reprieve from that behavior. The more scaleable the technology, the bigger the reprieve and the better our chances. What Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has done with appliance standards in China is a perfect example of this. “Technology buffering” is not a panacea, but at least there is an opportunity to insert new clean technologies into existing products and systems and have a significant and accelerated impact. That’s what gets me moving in the morning. (Several new books, The Cleantech RevolutionThe Plot to Save the Planet and Apollo’s Fire address this movement).

What interests me from the Fortune event and others that I’ve attended over the past two years is a shift in the conversation. Many of the people I talk to say green/blue doesn’t really matter. I agree. What matters is that “industrial restructuring” takes place. Whether the CEO of Stonyfield Farm (“we don’t even use green to describe our customers, but ‘quality’ or ‘educated’”), the chairman of SC Johnson (“we need to move the conversation from going green to transforming industry”), Vinod Khosla (“people’s view of green is obsolete, its about mainstream business”), or builder Steve Glenn (“within 15 years green building goes away as a category”), the focus is more and more on creating a technological buffer to reshape the way we supply and demand.

So let’s focus on the technology that is going to get rid of the only color that deserves our attention – the black of oil and coal.