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Venture Beat Editor: Cleantech Industry “Needs to Hit the Pocketbook, Not Just the Cerebrum”

on • 3 min. read

Today, the cleantech sector – renewables, green transportation, green buildings, electric motors, energy efficiency - is finally growing fast enough to pose a serious, market-disrupting competitor to traditional, status-quo industries, such as coal and oil. The dirty energy lobby doesn’t like it one bit. It has launched a concerted campaign of attacks through heavy spending an array of front groups to undercut the popularity and viability of solar, wind and energy efficiency as foundational parts of our energy future.

Countering this assault will require stepped-up and far more proactive public positioning efforts by cleantech. For this effort to be successful, however, the cleantech industry will have to connect with customers, investors and the public not just through facts and figure, but at a core values and emotional level.

The other day at Tigercomm, Venture Beat Executive Editor Owen Thomas made the case for this more “gut-level” approach to marketing cleantech powerfully and articulately, as he kicked off our new lecture series. Here’s Owen’s dead-on assessment:

... it’s that kind of challenge, where cleantech needs to figure out a way to become more visceral and immediate and actually matter in peoples’ day-to-day lives. It needs to hit the pocketbook, not just the cerebrum. So, that’s the challenge; really, cleantech needs to find an audience.

Thomas was responding to a question I'd posed about the relative size and robustness of high tech versus cleantech journalism. This part of his answer is also highly relevant:

And once [cleantech finds an audience], there are reporters who want to write about it, there are sources who want to talk about it, and there are advertisers who want to bring their messages to that audience. It just needs to find that audience, and everything starts with the audience; if you don’t have an audience, you don’t have a media business.

We find that our clients’ management ranks are heavily populated by people with engineering backgrounds. These folks are often brilliant, and especially well equipped to drive the technical innovation that generates much of the excitement around cleantech. The catch is that those extremely valuable engineering backgrounds demand numerical clarity and rigorous, empirical explanations for public relations and corporate communications. The problem is that public relations, while critically important and valuable, is almost always indirect in its nature, relying on influencing an environment in which many factors are beyond our or our clients' control.

As Emory University psychologist Drew Westen's research has powerfully demonstrated, people are fundamentally not inclined towards making even big decisions, such as purchasing a solar field, as a fundamentally rational act. Instead, people need to be emotionally connected with a product (Westen’s work focuses a great deal on voting patterns and political communications) before they can get to the facts and figures. That, in a nutshell, is the challenge facing cleantech today.

First and foremost, Thomas’ message is this: If the cleantech industry hopes to create strong market positioning, customer credibility and continuing public support, it will need to communicate at a powerful, “gut” level the exciting things it is doing. We’ve been making this case to cleantech clients in private conversations for the past several years, but Owen Thomas swooped in and explained it better than we ever had. Cleantech clients should put a lot of stock in what he says, as Owen is exactly the sort of high-level journalist who cleantech companies often ask us to pitch.