How 3 academics developed brilliant green marketing plans

Eco-Leadership

How 3 academics developed brilliant green marketing plans

Commercializing a business in an emerging field is a messy enterprise. No matter how systematically the process begins, charting a new course inevitably involves throwing stuff against a wall to see what sticks. In such instances when you cannot control the outcome, focus on what you can control: marketing.

Foundational to the successful launch and longevity of an idea, initiative or institution, marketing is not something you can ever check off the list or fully delegate to someone else. As David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, once said, "Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department." And in the case of ecopreneurs or social innovators, there is no marketing department -- just you and your big idea.

Launching my company in 2005 with a crude business plan and no start-up capital, I was armed only with the certainty that it would work because the world needed it to work. Lacking the know-how for selling my original ideas in a region considerably lagging in sustainability, I went on a crusade to find a low-cost, credible strategy for promoting my concept, starting with the book "Marketing for Dummies." (The bright yellow volume still sits on my bookshelf to remind me how far I've come.) Today, my firm advises clients from clean tech startups to NGOs and Fortune 500 companies on how to bolster their brands and distinguish themselves from the competition through profitable sustainability strategies.

I continue to be surprised by how gifted people -- from inventors and researchers to scientists and policy experts -- struggle when it comes to communicating and packaging their ideas for commercial appeal. This failure in marketing not only limits the individual, it also harms society because it renders potentially world-changing ideas and technologies ineffective. In preparing to speak on this subject for a recent conference, this occurred to me: It's not the average Internet marketer most in need of marketing advice -- it's the average genius.

Ingenious Marketing vs. Marketing Genius

AMC's "Mad Men" is now in its sixth season, and Don Draper is back at masterminding campaigns to tantalize and cajole consumers into purchasing products that may or may not deliver on their promises. I'm not saying that real-world advertising executives are as manipulative (or charming) as Draper, but I have enough friends in the field to understand advertisers' priorities. They are paid to create campaigns that sell products. It's what they do.

Genius, on the other hand, is much a tougher sell than a consumer product. Genius embodies truth -- or at least a potential for it. It is complex and promises no immediate gratification. Such traits tend not to have broad appeal. (Think satellite TV: 800 channels and about 10 of them would qualify as "smart.") Therefore, marketing genius in today's media environment requires a more nuanced approach than ingenious marketing does.

Practically speaking, you're dealing with a vastly different budget. Ingenious marketing is expensive. A 30-second spot on this year's Super Bowl cost $3.5 million, a sum that many consumer products companies now consider a necessary expense. Fortunately, a Super Bowl ad would be ineffective for marketing genius to the people that would care. The method for disseminating ideas would look more like the peer-review process that scientists and academics undergo to publish their research. The problem there, however, is that this lengthy and closed process prevents the flow of ideas to a wider public.

Many people around the periphery of academia want to bridge practice with theory and higher-level thought, if only they had access. Thought leadership is an excellent strategy for bridging this gap. An art and a science involving a blend of branding, messaging, writing, speaking and relationship-building, thought leadership is really about leading with ideas.

I came to appreciate thought leadership as a marketing strategy when I noticed that the traditional approach to media relations was dying as the Internet gained momentum. Without the budget for advertising (which I'm convinced would not have been effective for my purpose anyway), I sought innovative solutions and possibilities in projecting my voice in the online environment. Establishing a thought leadership platform proved a more natural fit, allowing me to spread my message as writer and consultant rather than marketer and promoter. The same strategy can work for anyone interested in sharing ideas and even selling a product, provided it offers a unique solution to an unfulfilled need.

Social Media for the Socially Conscious

Howard Aiken, the original conceptual designer behind IBM's Harvard Mark I computer, once said: "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." Geniuses like Steve Jobs managed to ram ideas down people's throats with a blend of brilliance, quirky star appeal and what some call egomania, but not everyone wants to lead (or live) like that. If black turtlenecks, TED talks or even extraversion are not in your wheelhouse, there is still hope.

In fact, some inspiring examples of authentic, down-to-earth thought leadership lie 50 miles north of Silicon Valley at the University of California at Berkeley. Teaching and researching at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, UC Berkeley professors are also innovative marketers of their own ideas. The tools used by these leaders also can transfer to innovators in the sustainability field. Here's how three world-class professors have set up their social media platforms for thought leadership:

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and author of 13 books. Reich has a personal website which contains lots of video and slideshows, and acts as a hub that links to Facebook, Twitter and a blog on Tumblr. He's got over 80,000 likes on his Facebook page and upwards of 132,000 followers on Twitter. In addition, he is the co-founder of The American Prospect, a progressive bi-monthly online and print magazine.

George Lakoff, author, pioneering cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley since 1972. Lakoff has a personal website, a blog and a Facebook page with 4,800 likes. He writes for outlets such as Huffington Post and publishes political books, in addition to his extensive scholarly articles and academic books. What I love about Lakoff is his plain speech. (More on his work in framing in a future Eco-Leadership post.)

Dara O'Rourke, associate professor of global production systems and news strategies of governance at UC Berkeley and co-founder of Good Guide. O'Rourke's website contains links to his research, teaching, writing, GoodGuide, public interest content, speaking, consulting, and his LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. His site also features a link to Shopping for Good, which reflects essays from a debate he participated in through The Boston Review. It's a great example of capturing an experience that relatively few were able to witness and making it available to the wider world.

Thought leadership isn't rocket science (sorry, geniuses). It is more like a craft, a discipline and a state of mind. It's a means of being a conduit for ideas. It calls for an appreciation that the more you share, the more connected you will become to the rest of the world and the greater impact you are likely to have. In a democratized media environment moving increasingly online, thought leadership via social media is a skill set that everyone would do well to cultivate.

Thought leaders leave a legacy

It's not a coincidence that top professors are also good marketers, because good teachers excel at connecting the dots to make abstract concepts come alive. As Jennifer Rubiello, who took a class with Reich, explains, "I liked his teaching style, how he illustrated concepts. Our favorite class was when he used a cake as a metaphor to illustrate equality and equity. He showed the many ways you could divide up the pie when it comes to public policy. Afterwards, we all got to eat the cake."

Rubiello describes how interactive discussion groups allowed for participatory exercises and creative engagement. Even as those sessions were led by graduate advisors, Reich remained available to the students as well as his wider audience of readers. "I asked him to speak to a big scholarship forum we were having and he did," said Rubiello. "He seems to make an effort to be accessible."

The quality of communicating complexity in a relatable manner that connects with people leaves an indelible mark on UC Berkeley students. Three Cal grads I know are themselves expert communicators with a flair for injecting both urgency and meaning into abstract ideas.

Recent grad Rubiello is wrapping up her fellowship year with Green Corps in DC. Tony Robinson is an author, co-founder of EARTH-NT and an adjunct professor of sustainability at Southern Methodist University. David McGuire, executive director of Shark Stewards, is an internationally recognized marine biologist, documentary filmmaker and ocean conservation advocate. None of these individuals has a career in marketing, but they are all using the power of thought leadership to further their causes through Facebook, Twitter, consistent writing, newsletters, relationship building and media outreach.

Many intelligent people ignore marketing because they think they are too busy or too introverted to make it work. Others fail to do it because their companies or academic institutions do not reward them for it. Some even dismiss it as too common. However, this failure to package one's knowledge for a wider audience can impede the spread of great ideas.

Establishing your thought leadership platform is essential to building influence and instilling capacity to attract quality clients. It is worth the time and discipline to engage in it, because genius isn't just how you show up on an IQ test -- it's also in how you show up in the world.

Green idea photo by Palo_ok on Shutterstock.

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