From a marketing and communications standpoint, 2011 should have been a wake-up call for the cleantech industry in the U.S. We are getting our collective butts kicked in the national conversation. Yes, individual companies did well. Enough good to outweigh the bad. But, the narrative in the media has been relentlessly negative, and it's having an effect.
In the latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll (March 19, 2012), support nationally for alternative energy (a proxy for all of cleantech) has fallen significantly, by 11 points over just the past year, with support eroding further in the west, with men and with Republicans.
Meanwhile, throughout the cleantech ecosystem we are witnessing a renaissance of innovation. Technology, materials, processes and services are being reinterpreted and turbocharged by an increasingly sophisticated information technology infrastructure -- the internet of things -- which is magnifying benefits up and down the food chain. Old records for efficiencies are being blown away while costs are coming down as generational improvements ricochet off design and manufacturing improvements.
And yet we face a public that is losing faith, or simply doesn't understand that the cleantech future is here and how it will benefit them.
So here is the challenge to us all: Can we go to market as though we share a future?
A Big Enveloping Program
If we want to market cleantech like we mean it, we have to create as sophisticated a marketing apparatus as the oil, gas and coal industries. We need a unified front -- making a very compelling argument that the ecosystem of clean technologies will reshape our markets in such profound ways that it will make the IT revolution look like a throat clearing.
Engineering a massive market shift like cleantech must take the form of a big, enveloping program that frames the goals of a major transition to cleantech while methodically laying out the benefits. This has to be coupled with a constant string of announcements of compelling new products, core technologies and services and real, on-the-ground examples of technologies already in action.
A marketing effort for the nation's cleantech industries has to be evidence-based, persistent and absolutely everywhere -- and it has to be relentless. From paid media to press to social media -- images, examples, and interviews need to be racked up like flights out of JFK. Beyond green blogs, science pages, and the slices of ephemera used as filler on cable, communications need to be in the business pages, hard-core news, and reaching into red states and blue states.
A Unified Front
Right now, various cleantech sectors (solar, wind, EV's, smart grid, biofuels, building materials, lighting, etc.) are going to market independent of one another. This disregards essential synergies created when two or more clean technologies are coupled. And it's slow. Separately, discrete clean technologies are invisible. Together, they are a force.
Next page: The three objections to marketing as a unified front
I've heard three objections to going to market together: The first is that each technology has specific markets. The second is that each sector has defined policy needs on Capitol Hill. The third is that they don't want to waste money helping develop another group's market.
The first objection is answered by the fact that no brand owns more than single digit market share. The problem isn't a lack of niche marketing. The problem is too much niche marketing. We have a big argument to make to the American public -- instead we are scrapping for the truth in small skirmishes. The "big idea" of what cleantech represents can't be projected with a banner ad in Plumber's Quarterly. You have to develop broad acceptance of the concept of cleantech before you can make a targeted pitch. Similarly, when you cluster clean technologies, they amplify one another.
Second, to paraphrase Braveheart: why are we fighting each other over the policy scraps from Longshanks' table (in this case the fuel lobbies)? Cleantech is a more powerful lobby as an industry than a group of parts. Before we will ever win another policy battle separately, we have to get the public on our side collectively.
Third, what do you have to lose by working together?
Who makes up this Clean Tech Marketing Coalition? Everyone: wind (large and small, on and offshore), solar of every flavor and scale, geothermal, electric and hybrid cars, transportation, turbines, biofuels, charging stations, new technologies for sustainable buildings, lighting, batteries, smart grid, new internet enabled technologies like meters and thermostats, tech and data companies and everyone I'm leaving out. Everyone. Pool your resources. Create a marketing utility and get cracking.
Put the Pin Back in the Political Hand Grenade
A natural instinct is to go politically neutral. Make this a red-state and blue-state promise. Put the pin back in the political hand grenade. Make nice. But it won't be that easy.
All forms of cleantech have become political targets. Part of the reason we need an industry-wide marketing function is we're being used as a political punching bag. We keep hitting the canvas, and no one is throwing back. This can't continue.
I don't know when American innovation and cool new solutions became political -- but they have. When the first innovations in light bulbs in a century came under political attack (by Mitt Romney and Rep. Michelle Bachmann, among others), and this went largely unchallenged -- it was clear something had changed.
The rest of the cleantech sector is not immune, as we've seen with solar, electric vehicles, and alternative energy in general. Media Matters, a left-leaning media organization examined coverage of alternative energy on Fox News, and found it overwhelming negative. This matters because Fox ratings generally exceed the ratings of all other cable news networks combined.
There's a way to do this that isn't partisan as much as it's a war-cry in defense of cleantech innovation. We need to clearly articulate the profound benefits that specific clean technologies offer, get the public excited about what we're working on, and let the American passion for a cool future take us the rest of the way there.
To Move the Pols, Move the Polls
Policy support would be really helpful here. But we have neglected the voters to win over the Hill. There are two ways to win in Washington. One is to have the financial influence to affect policy; the other is to create an insurrection with the public.
A cleantech marketing consortium can change the political discourse. A first step, ask the public why their elected representatives won't support innovations that will save billions of dollars across the economy. Ask if they want to lose the opportunity to participate in the next wave of global innovation. And then convince them we have working technologies today to make this transition, and will get them to the other side safely. Change the polls, and we change the dynamic.
Start Throwing Some Elbows
A fallacy becomes the "conventional wisdom" when nonsense oft-repeated goes unchallenged. How many cable news segments repeated some variation of the statement that clean energy is not ready, will never be widely available or affordable without massive government support? Without a countervailing argument this version sticks and erodes confidence, as evidenced in the latest Pew research.
In any other industry, if misstatements are made, press people demand a retraction. CEO's are booked on programs or into editorial boards. Ads are run, elbows thrown, corrections made.
We need to field a rapid response team of industry leaders and analysts, from across the cleantech spectrum, whose sole job is pushing back and reframing the conversation.
Don't Bring a Silly Straw to a Gun Fight
Our competitors have marketing coalitions that relentlessly make their case on every media platform. You cannot turn on cable news without seeing coal, oil, and natural gas commercials. They are on the air, on the web, in the news, in the business pages. We are not. We are disorganized, disaggregated, disassembled. Our competitors want to crush us. We are taking a silly straw to a gun fight.
Next page: For Pete's sake, no more polar bears
Building a coalition for marketing cleantech encompassing the breadth of technologies that make up the sector, allows us to pull together the hardcore, most impressive technologies and bring cohesion to the cleantech spectrum. Imagine ads run by America's Clean Technology Industries. Imagine press junkets and major social media efforts. Imagine the sound of your combined voices. Now: Imagine winning.
Messaging: No More Polar Bears
The key to great marketing, great advertising, is to do something unexpected, to blow up the stereotypes, to work against type -- to be disruptive.
We need to start blowing apart the embedded stereotypes routinely attributed to cleantech industries. They are holding us back. We can start with the stereotypes of being overly feminine, impractical, tree-hugging, and affordable only to niche audiences of the rich, celebrities or Democrats.
Why did T. Boone Pickens get so much media traction when he supported wind? It was because he's a Republican "oil and gas" man. We should never air another commercial for any cleantech product with a polar bear or fuzzy animals or forests, or use a Hollywood spokesperson. It doesn't work.
Hire marketing people who understand disruption. Make them blow up the stereotypes and the worn out metaphors and visuals. Start with the polar bears.
Messaging: Speak the Language of Business and First Order Benefits
What does work is being for something. The way to get massive uptake of clean technologies is by hammering first order benefits in our communications and speaking the language of business and consumers.
What do most clean technologies really offer? A reduction in fossil fuel dependencies; a reduction in waste; lower water usage; lower materials costs; greater visibility into future operating costs; lower volatility in pricing -- for fuel, for electricity, for core inputs; lower risk due to lower dependence on exogenous markets and geopolitical instabilities. Greater certainty. The language of cleantech marketing can and should mirror the key set of concerns most on the mind of CEO's today.
The same is true of consumers. We frequently hear about the high cost of clean technologies like electric vehicles or solar panels in the press, but are consumers likely to see their oil or utility bills go down? Wouldn't they like to know about innovations that can give them increasing control over costs of water and energy?
OPEC has declared oil will stay at about $100 per barrel, or higher, forever. Why aren't we marketing against this declared price statement? Consumers don't want to be victims. They want greater control over their future in an uncertain world.
The cleantech sector needs to better capture this zeitgeist. Everything cleantech offers is eerily close to what the market is clamoring for. But we're focusing on everything but. It's easy to figure out what to say. But will anyone listen?
Messaging: Grow a Sense of Humor
Getting folks to listen to marketing means they have to lower their defenses. But, the cleantech sector has tone issues that can increase the barriers. Our communications are generally humorless, reinforcing the worst stereotypes. Blowing up those stereotypes means signaling we understand and are able to laugh at them.
We can throw elbows, talk about breaking OPEC's iron grip, and still have a sense of humor. We can make fun of the stereotypes, and definitely make fun of the opposition, while still making our point, and increasing our audience.
When we get people to laugh, they let their guard down. If we can get them on our side they start listening. When we begin to craft a personality for cleantech that is unambiguously joyful about the future, we've won. In short, we can be a lot funnier.
Be Everywhere, Everyday, All the Time, Right Away
To sum up: We need a massive collective marketing campaign for the Clean Tech Industries of America. We need to collaborate with a plan, well devised and executed, that flattens the pervasive misconceptions, throws elbows, is unyielding as a rapid response team, enables cleantech leaders to lead the discussion, gets us out of a defensive crouch, and frames the present and future in a positive, benefits oriented, relentless program that is everywhere, everyday, all the time. We need to do this with a sense of humor. And we need it yesterday.
Sound like a tall order? It's a challenge no bigger than the environmental and energy problems we're already hard at work solving every day.
So let's get going.
Solar panels photo via Shutterstock.