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 GreenBiz.com)

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

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.

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