Hummer: a beast of a brand

Branding is tricky business.

It’s not enough to crisply differentiate a product, provide stellar service and reinforce your customers’ delusions of grandeur. The whims of the market might still bring you down.

That’s what’s happened with the Hummer. Say what you want about the make, now being euthanized by GM, but you can’t deny the brand’s potency. Huge. Tough. Dangerous. Cavalier. I am a force. Reckon with my a**.

The problem was, the brand couldn’t contain its own machismo. Like a downhill ski racer hurtling off the course, the machine’s daring was its downfall. Utterly and unapologetically ginormous, it came to stand for everything that’s wrong with our auto-addicted, fossil-fueling, high-beaming selves. As we used to chant on the playground, Hey! Hey! Get outta my way! I just got back from the USA!

Which reminds me, a buddy of mine rolled up on a sexy new BMC racing bicycle the other day. Beefy, squared-off tubes. Not to be messed with.

“Dude,” I said, “that baby is the Hummer of bikes.”

Like a good liberal, he blanched.

Oops, sorry, meant that as a compliment. He likes the bike because it’s Swiss.

Anyway, a pending deal to sell Hummer to a Chinese concern fell through this week, prompting GM to say it will begin the “orderly wind-down of the Hummer operations.” As with the other brand GM recently tried to retire, Saab, there’s a glimmer of hope. That would be of interest to the 3,000 people who make and sell Hummers in the US, including 950 who work at an already shrinking GM plant in Shreveport, La.

If the brand does collapse, you can’t blame it on the brand per se. Gas prices, recessionary times, heightened eco-consciousness and a more touchy-feely zeitgeist also played roles. But wait, that’s getting back to the brand, isn’t it?

After all, the Hummer isn’t the only vehicle that gets paltry mileage. In fact, the Hummer H3T at 16 mpg was green enough to get on the cash-for-clunkers trade-up list – not as a clunker but as an approved replacement. There’s a fair number of Audis and Beemers in that mileage range, and no one’s calling for their demise.

So maybe the Hummer got a bad rap. Or maybe it didn’t. Either way, the Hummer is gone (nearly). In the elegiac words of the Bard of Big,

This is the end, my only Hummer friend, the end. Bad news for those who love the H make. Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.

It was a beast of a brand.

Smart grid marketers rejoice

Marketers for smart grid products have had it rough because it’s like trying to sell a movie without a story line. Few people outside the energy industry have a clue as to how the smart grid will work. Unresolved standards keep us from knowing what it will be made out of. And the smart grid’s promise of energy efficiency and cleaner air have been unsubstantiated guesses at best.

But on this last point, smart grid marketers now have a reason to smile. The U.S. Department of Energy has done the math and has finally wrapped some great numbers around smart grid efficiencies, providing much-needed fuel for the marketing machine.

According to a new DOE report, the smart grid will enable us to cut energy consumption by 12% by 2030, and cut carbon emissions from power plants by the same amount.

Smart grid marketers can now crisply message around how they’re going to reduce your electric bill while also greening the planet.

But for the message to stick, they also have to tackle the other fore mentioned obstacles by scrubbing the unnecessary technobabble from smart grid conversations. Today, smart grid marketers trumpet things like Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), peak-load demand response and home area networks (HANs). These terms are fine for B2B sales and marketing within the energy industry. But to create the consumer pull-demand that could accelerate smart grid deployments, marketers will need to create a new consumer-friendly lexicon.

Getting off the grid and into green biz: one man’s story

Dave Bonta hasn’t paid an electric bill in 12 years. He has no heating bill, either.

That’s because he kicked his 40 kilowatt/hr electricity habit in the 1990s and used solar electricity to fill the gap. “I learned to live on less,” he told an audience at RiverRun bookstore the other night. “Surprise, I made it to one kilowatt. It wasn’t hard…. It’s kind of nice to think we can throw our electric bills away. It’s kind of empowering.”

To reduce his power usage, Bonta – who has since co-authored the “The New Solar Home” and created the USA Solar Store chain – replaced light bulbs, got an energy-efficient washing machine, switched from a vacuum cleaner to a broom, and tossed the electric toothbrushes. “Anything that could be done with human power we did.” Even the press he used in his printing business was human-powered. He pedaled it.

Once he’d shrunk his energy footprint, he installed a small-scale solar electricity system in his rustic Vermont home. Printing customers immediately peppered him with questions about his set-up. That’s when the light bulb went off. He could sell this stuff, along with the know-how. Which is exactly what USA Solar Stores do, and the chain now has 27 stores in 11 states. It’s “about to grow like wildfire,” he says earnestly.

Bonta models his stores after the crunchy old Gateway stores, where the PCs were displayed on barnboard tables and salespeople didn’t bug you till you had a question. At USA Solar Stores, you can get anything from a conversation to a compact fluorescent light bulb to a full-fledged solar electricity setup. Or you can come in, look and leave. No worries. In any case, Bonta’s team is eager to address what he calls the three solar bogey men: expense, viability, aesthetics.

Bogey Man #1: Solar electricity is too expensive. Bonta will look at your current electric bill, figure in current incentives, find ways to reduce your demand, and show you how long it will take to pay off your gear. Even if the incentives disappear, he says, it’s still a good deal. The joy of sticking it to the man? Priceless.

Bogey Man #2: It doesn’t work too well. Wrong, he says.There’s a myth that if you wait, solar technology will get less expensive and super technology will come along. “The way it is now is pretty good. The technology is there, and the only thing missing is people who will try it.”

Bogey Man #3: It’s ugly. No, Bonta says, solar is becoming increasingly “building integrated” – where it’s embedded in your roof, not tacked on like an afterthought. And you don’t need it on your house at all. Bonta’s panels are on his shed, which gets better light anyway. The homes in his book are of jaw-dropping beauty.

Bonta is a softspoken guy. Although he has the conviction of a preacher, he has the slickness of, well, the guy who melted down in his first speech to the Rotary. But in the bookstore, once he warmed up you could tell he will not be denied: “Everything we can do to get our country on a sustainable path, we’re going to do.” If not, he says, generations will hold us accountable for the demise of the world’s ecology. “We can either explain it to them from a wheelchair, or fix it now.”

A new generation of products wraps stodgy concept of conservation in sexy new clothes

Not too long ago I described conservation and efficiency as the homely sisters in the sustainable energy world because there were no iconic products that symbolize efficiency the way wind farms and solar panels symbolize their respective industries. I was wrong. Epically wrong.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently published a list of companies that received grants to develop energy efficiency technologies. Many of these products are relatively boring, designed to toil away deep in the bowels of a power generation system, squeezing out delivering a few more watts here and a few more degrees there. Others, though, really capture the imagination. They show that energy efficiency doesn’t have to be a dud in the public eye. It can excite the popular imagination and communicate the message that using less energy is the single nicest thing you can do for the Earth until renewable energy usurps fossil fuels. And some of these efficiency products are, if you’ll grant some latitude on the use of the word, sexy.

Take Nanotrons, a division of Agiltron. Nanotron is working on a long-lasting reflective coating to improve on today’s short-lived coatings. Paint Nanotron’s coating on your building’s roof, then watch your cooling costs drop. Kazak Composites is developing building panels that retain heat and coolness, and “know” when to release them to keep room temperatures even. Lower air conditioning bills in a can? Smart sheetrock? Not bad.

Even the stuff that will work under the covers has a good cool quotient. Machflow Energy, for example, is using exotic gases like krypton and xenon in a heat pump that makes refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners run on less electricity and with no environmental damage. Considering that heating and cooling systems emit over a half billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to the DOE, efficiency improvements make a huge difference to the environment. And you thought krypton was Superman’s home planet and xenon was the warrior princess’ brother.

Some products combine efficiency with one of the other marquee sustainable energy sources. Covalent Solar is developing coated glass that improves solar voltaic efficiency by concentrating solar energy on dense arrays of solar cells at the edges of the glass, reducing the overall number of cells needed to produce the same amount of power as a larger solar array. Giner Electrochemical Systems, LLC., is working on a new way to produce hydrogen (fuel cells, anyone?) with less electricity than current production methods.

So back to the use of “sexy.” Maybe “interesting” or “fascinating” would have been more appropriate words to describe these up-and-coming efficiency technologies, but they lack the necessary sizzle. Energy efficiency needs to be in the public’s face – and not just the “earth first” set. They’re already invested. I’m talking rank-and-file consumers. The U.S. consumer market consists of more than 100 million households and generates about 17 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to As much as 30 percent of the energy used to power household heating, cooling and appliances is wasted. The European Union is ahead of the U.S. on the efficiency front. It has already set a goal of cutting its energy consumption 20 percent by 2020, and it knows it needs the mass audience’s buy-in to reach that goal. “To achieve this goal, it is working to mobilize public opinion, decision-makers and market operators and to set minimum energy efficiency standards and rules on labeling for products, services and infrastructure,” the European Energy Agency writes on its Web site. We’re not going to make worldwide societal changes that reduce energy consumption by talking like Mr. Spock. Efficiency needs an iconic product that combines a little Angelina Jolie sex appeal with some Steve Jobs salesmanship thrown in for good measure.

Government aims to crowdsource cleantech innovation

With solar, wind, PHEVs, geothermal, biofuels and most other green technologies still out of reach for most people, the U.S. Department of Energy wants to try crowdsourcing our way to affordable clean energy.

The DOE recently launched an open-source wiki called Open Energy Information ( as a community platform for collectively solving our energy challenges. What Wikipedia did for socializing world knowledge, can do for clean technology innovation, the thinking goes.
“The true potential of this tool will grow with the public’s participation — as they add new data and share their expertise — to ensure that all communities have access to the information they need to broadly deploy the clean energy resources of the future,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in the Agency’s press release. bills itself as a linked open data platform, trying to create synapses between all the world’s energy information “to provide improved analyses, unique visualizations, and real-time access to data.” Anyone can post and edit information, upload additional data to the site and download information in easy-to-use formats.

The site currently houses more than 60 clean energy resources and data sets, including maps of worldwide solar and wind potential, information on climate zones, and best practices. To give it even more social cred, links to the DOE’s Virtual Information Bridge to Energy (VIBE), a browseable collection of widgets that provide up-to-date industry information and unique visualizations of clean energy data.

It’s a compelling idea. Most cleantech science is forged within silos, isolated in commercial and academic research labs. A global hive mind of expertise could bring a Red Bull jolt of collective creativity to unstick long-stuck science problems.
But will the labs be willing to play ball on an open source field if meant opening up their IP to competitors?

Wind energy’s huge opportunity … and its challenges

I see so many windmill blades I feel like Don Quixote. There are at least five windmills – turbines we call them now, since they’re only milling electrons – within a 20-minute bike ride of my doorstep. These devices hint at the appeal, promise and challenges of wind power as a major energy source for the country and the world.

A trio of turbine towers spikes the farmland just up the road in Eliot, Maine. Although the proud owners expect an eventual payback, are receiving tax credits, and are putting a few kilowatts back into the grid, their motives are largely ecological: In the first month, John Sullivan’s 2.4-kilowatt[1] turbine “saved 120.4 pounds of CO2 from going in the air.” That’s the amount he figures a coal-powered plant would have pumped out making that electricity.

Unfortunately, the next town over, Kittery, is dismantling the 50-kilowatt turbine it erected in 2008 and returning it to the manufacturer for a refund, citing “underperformance” of the project. Trees and buildings created turbulence no one had accounted for, and the tower was producing only 15 percent of its projected power.

But there’s more hope back in Eliot. East of the farms, on the banks of the Piscataqua River, deep sea engineer Ben Brickett has been developing a turbine that turns in a breeze as gentle as 2 mph. That’s big, because low-wind days are the bane of traditional turbines. Called a variable force generator, Brickett’s invention converts wind directly into electricity, bypassing the conventional gearbox. Unlike other turbines, he says, it also manages to produce power in proportion to the wind speed, up to 60 mph. His company, Blue Water Concepts, is deep into prototype testing and is attracting interest from academia and manufacturing partners.

These are just a few small examples of how the Unites States has come to be the world leader in wind power with the fastest-growing capacity.

A mighty wind
The U.S. wind energy industry installed a record-breaking 8,500 megawatts of new wind-generation capacity last year, enough to serve more than 2 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That brought the country’s total capacity up to 23,500 megawatts and pumped $17 billion into the economy. The new projects accounted for roughly 42 percent of the entire new power-producing capacity added in 2008. It was like taking more than 7 million cars off the road.

The country has more than enough wind resources to reach a 20-percent wind energy contribution to the US elecrtricity supply by 2030, according to a DOE report. We’re currently at 4 percent for wind, biomass, geothermal, solar, and miscellaneous sources combined.

As this DOE map shows, the best wind is on the coasts and in the plains states. Texas leads the country with the most installed wind-based capacity by a wide margin, followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota and Washington.

Without losing sight of our tremendous progress, to follow is a list of obstacles impeding even more robust wind development. Anyone promoting wind, whether a new turbine design or 500-megawatt wind farm, needs to consider these obstacles as they set out on their crusade.

The country needs transmission systems that can shuttle power from rural wind farms to urban centers as well as load balancing installations that enable regions to consume a mix of generation sources.

Green, in addition to being good, is fashionable. So your neighbor may never be more welcoming of the sight of a windmill, or fleet of them, on your roof or farm. That said, there’s plenty of resistance. The $900 million Cape Wind project slated for Nantucket, Mass., has dragged on in permitting, politics and litigation since 2001. Viewshed impact is high on opponents’ list of concerns. So why not site wind farms on sparsely populated land? That’s not so simple either, as a Wyoming farmer is finding out.

Ten thousand birds, including 80 golden eagles, die every year at a California wind farm near San Francisco, according to a study by the local community development agency. Wind proponents blame that carnage an unlikely convergence of factors, including bad siting and older turbine technology. On average, they say, wind power’s avian toll is extremely low.

No doubt about it, windmills make noise. But the key questions include: How loud? Is the sound of whooshing blades a bad noise? How far away are you? How fast is the wind blowing? Wind proponents put windmill noise in the decibel range of household background noise or the sound of trees and leaves rustling on a blustery day.

The government (i.e., taxpayers) has begun issuing $500 million in grants to spur wind energy development as part of the economic recovery package. They’re a double-edged sword for people worrying about personal and national debt.

Foreign Investments
One company with Spanish DNA has received more than half of that $500 million grant money, says the Environmental News Service. Too many reports like this won’t sit well with the public.

The communications strategy
So what does this all mean for the inventor or company promoting wind? The good news is there’s abundant popular support and a persuasive case for wind and other renewable energy sources. Yet, as with any complex technology that needs to go in someone’s backyard, there is bound to be wariness, if not opposition, to siting proposals.

Consequently, any development effort requires a solid communications plan born out of this strategy:

  1. Identify all the potential benefits of a project, not just those in your market segment or locale. Include the benefits of wind to the planet.
  2. Talking points promoting your project are just a start. You need data, and there is plenty of it out there. As you can see by the links in this blog, the American Wind Energy Association is a great place to start.
  3. Develop content up front that documents all of the benefits. Main audiences include the public, planners and regulators.
  4. Connect with advocacy organizations, politicians, utilities, business groups, landowners, conservationists and educators who are likely to favor your project.
  5. Anticipate all potential concerns and prepare to address them squarely. Avoid defensiveness or reactivity. Listen and talk rather than argue. Some skeptics just need to be informed.
  6. Depending on what you’re proposing, you could end up with a lot of energized opposition. Make sure you have the arms, legs and content to swiftly and effectively address the concerns.
  7. If you believe in your project, stay the course.

Some helpful resources from the American Wind Energy Association:

Handbook for permitting small wind turbines:

Talking points on the benefits of wind energy.

Handbook for commercial scale siting.

Wind power outlook for 2009

[1] A 5kW turbine is sufficient on average to power a home. Variables include wind speed, turbine height, terrain and home energy usage, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

How Marc Gunther found a sustainable voice

Marc Gunther is one of the most respected thinkers, writers and speakers on business, the environment and corporate social responsibility.

Last year, Ethisphere ranked him # 39 out of 100 “influentials” in business ethics, ahead of Jim Koch, T. Boone Pickens, James Goodnight and Paul Newman. It’s a well-earned reputation.

In a wide-brush conversation, I asked him about his early influences, career highlights and how he became enamored with business ethics and sustainability.

Gunther grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. “I was a child of the Sixties. My parents weren’t that politically involved, but our Rabbi was part of the civil rights movement; he had marched with Martin Luther King. That inspired me.

“I was an idealist, growing up during one of the most interesting times in history with JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK. Incredible social progress was being made, from the civil rights movement to the women’s movement. Vietnam and Watergate were happening. This had a big impact on me.”

Gunther graduated from Yale in 1973 with an English degree, but couldn’t find a job in journalism. His first gig was with a clean air activist group funded by Ralph Nader. “I inspected boilers in New York City, making sure pollution controls were being met, working with City enforcement groups. It was literally a dirty job.”

Then he cracked journalism.

Over the next two decades, he climbed the newspaper ladder, starting with the Paterson (N.J.) News, then The Hartford Courant, The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Washington Bureau of Knight Ridder. He covered many topics, but wrote most often about TV, media, politics and business. Gunther also interpreted the Internet in the nineties, writing stories like “What is cyberspace?” and “What is e-mail?”

When Fortune magazine hired him in 1996, he wrote even more about business. “I was beginning to wonder what had happened to my idealistic values. I had gotten off track.”

Around the time Gunther turned 50, he wrote a cover story for Fortune called “God and Business.”

“I interviewed people at the intersection of religion and corporate America. People like Jim Collins of “Built to Last” talked about business and values. I spoke with a Notre Dame priest who also taught MBAs. These people got me thinking about business in a fresh way. They were treating people well and believed business can – and should be – a force for good, for positive social change.”

The story became a turning point for him professionally and personally.

“Until then, I had a cliché view of business. The tension that existed between business and values got me thinking in a fresh way. Suddenly, I was no longer interested in writing about media companies, the entertainment industry, American Idol.”

Gunther began writing with “a sense of purpose.”

He wrote a cover story about the greening of Walmart and one about Jeff Immelt’s efforts to reshape the values of General Electric. “Those were two very interesting reputational turnarounds.”

He wrote a cover piece about Hank Paulson, as well as spirituality in the workplace. He authored stories about the business of carbon finance, the rise of corporate social responsibility, the zero-waste movement, genetically-modified rice, environmental activism, corporate governance, AIDS and gay rights in corporate America.

Last December, Gunther (and about 100 others) was let go by Fortune. He calls this experience “a hugely valuable event,” because it connected him with even greater numbers of interesting people and opportunities. Gunther likens it to an economic model called creative disruption “where things are destroyed and then new things spring up.”

The social media revolution is serving him well. His popular blog is proliferating. Gunther is on Facebook, YouTube and he’s started Tweeting (@MarcGunther).

His blog is being syndicated by two of the most influential online environmental voices, and The Energy Collective.

Proving “creative disruption” brings good karma to good people, Gunther not only still writes for Fortune, he authored the current cover story “Warren Buffett takes charge” about the Chinese company BYD.

Gunther smiles and in his self-effacing style says, “This could be a first – a laid off reporter writing a cover story for the publication that let him go, four months after it happened.”

If you’re green, prove it

Green is wonderful, especially if you’re savoring it in the forest on a pillow of sun-drenched moss.

As a marketing term, though, green is getting old. Overuse and spin have dulled the verdant halo. Increasingly “green” label may be warning wary consumers they might be getting jerked around. Same with sustainable, fresh, local, organic, natural, recyclable and energy-efficient.

Consumers do want to buy green, and despite the recession, four out of five consumers claim they do (survey results). Unfortunately, one in three doesn’t know how to verify green claims. Translation: when consumers buy green, often they don’t really know what they’re buying.

Since buyers need information and sellers need credibility, the next wave of green marketing will rely heavily on proof – documentation and certification – just as cars rely on JD Power, and as buildings rely on LEED certification.

Says the Federal Trade Commission: “Claims that a product or service is ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘environmentally safe,’ ‘environmentally preferable,’ or ‘eco-safe’ or labels that contain environmental seals – say, a picture of the globe with the words ‘Earth Smart’ around it – are unhelpful for two reasons: First, all products, packaging and services have some environmental impact, although some may have less than others. Second, these phrases alone do not provide the specific information you need to compare products, packaging, or services on their environmental merits. Look for claims that give some substance to the claim – the additional information that explains why the product is environmentally friendly or has earned a special seal.”

So what’s the seal of approval for green claims? There are options for niche segments of the industry, but no universal seal.

A hundred years after introducing its venerable seal of approval, Good Housekeeping wants a similar role in green affairs, at least when it comes to consumer goods for the household, like appliances, toys, cosmetics, food, beverages. The magazine is launching a green seal in the April issue.

The nonprofit Green Seal,  unrelated to Good Housekeeping, also covers consumer goods, but skews toward the institutional and B2B market with categories in construction, food service, office products, transportation and utilities. It has been certifying products since 1992. Green Seal’s bona fides are here Certified Green Seal products and services are here.

The Federal Trade Commission doesn’t have a seal, but offers guidelines for avoiding false or misleading green claims, over which it has some enforcement power. Here are its suggestions for businesses trying to comply with its “Green Guides” against deceptive green marketing. It defines terms like biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content and ozone- friendly.

The data center community is pushing for special LEED standards specifically for power-hungry facilities packed with servers. The criteria would be entirely different from green homes or office buildings., launched by the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports in 2005, provides information on appliances, cars, electronics, food and home/garden products. It gives ratings and provides calculators.

Two generally respected labels are USDA Organic for food and ENERGY STAR  from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. The Today Show suggests, and

The Boston Globe recently explored this miasma of green confusion around the carbon footprint issue. The article surprisingly revealed that microwaving food (they don’t call it nuking for nothing) is greener than baking it and that bottled water from Fiji or France is probably greener (again, from a carbon standpoint) than Poland Springs. The reason? Bottling plants in France typically use nuclear power-generated electricity, and Pacific Islands plants typically use geothermal-powered electricity. It’s fossil fuels in the United States. Bottom line: tap water is your best bet.

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. of Concord, Mass., (disclosure: a client), is developing software that fosters intelligent green decisions long before products hit the market – in the design phase. DS SolidWorks makes widely used 3D computer-aided design software, and the new product, code-named “Sage,” will detail in real time the environmental impact of parts, assemblies and design decisions that go into new products.

The software will feature a dashboard that not only provides information on carbon footprint but also on air impact, water impact and energy consumed in manufacturing. The high-end version will roll up the impact of a product across its environmental life cycle and also include information on energy consumption throughout a product’s usage phase.

So those are all the yardsticks. Are you unconfused yet?

Even if we could objectively measure, certify and label products from a perfect set of all-encompassing green standards, we’d still have problems like this: Which is better, buying a new eco friendly hybrid or driving your oil-burning microbus into the ground?

In the meantime, if you’re marketing a green product that’s really green, go to one of the authorities, document your environmental impact, and get certified.

Biofuel needs a new message

Biofuel startups have a messaging problem. Everyone from scientists and environmentalists to economists and ethicists are hammering the industry in a near-daily barrage of bad press and damning research studies.

I won’t spill the entire rap sheet against biofuels – you can read about them here or here for starters – but to summarize the key points affecting public perception:

  • “sustainable biofuel” is an oxymoron: it takes far more fuel and energy to produce than it delivers
  •  production actually causes more greenhouse gas emissions than it eliminates
  •  it takes farmland away from food crops, increasing prices and world hunger, and
  •  it contributes to rainforest deforestation, to name just a few offenses.

These problems are primarily the domain of first-generation biofuels produced from food stock like corn, soybeans or palm oil. Whether its indictments are fair or not, the perception taints the entire industry, including more promising second-generation alternatives such as cellulosic ethanol (which relies on non-food biomass like agricultural waste products and wood chips) and algae-based biofuels.

Yet the industry’s only response is the same old message it’s been touting since day one: Biofuel helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Important as energy independence may be, the message is ineffective. It’s a macroeconomic abstraction at a time when people are struggling with tougher problems closer to home… like having a job, healthcare and a place to live. It doesn’t give me a good reason to care. Besides, don’t solar, wind and other more clean energy industries have a more attractive hold on that same message? And for transportation fuels, electric and hybrid plug-in vehicles rule the day.

Weak messaging combined with the steady drumbeat of detractors has caused the biofuel industry to lose control of the debate…at their own peril. I don’t have the answer to biofuel’s messaging problem. But if asked, I’d steer the discussion this way:

Doing nothing is not an option – First, re-assert biofuel’s essential role in renewable energy diversity. The messaging needs to convey that while it may not be a perfect fuel; it’s certainly a better fuel. Detractors may fling their arrows, but what’s the alternative? Our oil addition may ebb as new green technologies catch hold, but it won’t go away in our generation. Do we just keep pumping and mainlining dirtier fossil fuels into our cars, homes and industries indefinitely? The messaging needs to communicate that doing nothing is not an option. No single renewable energy option can solve all our problems. Biofuel is a necessary part of our clean energy stew.

Make it personal, keep it local – The biofuel industry needs to get beyond its national energy independence message and explain how a well structured biofuel ecosystem can benefit local economies and, ultimately, people’s lives by:

  • creating jobs in feed stock, production and distribution, and
  • reducing the negative impact on local environments.

In our state of New Hampshire, for instance, the North Country’s economy is reeling from the collapse of the pulp and paper industry. Biomass production from waste wood would not only bring jobs and spur new ancillary businesses, it would lead to better forest management, which boosts tourism. Companies like Pacific Biodiesel and organizations like the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance promote small scale, community-based biofuel production based on local feedstocks, local production and local distribution of sustainable fuel. In other words, “grow it here, produce it here, use it here.” The messaging needs to communicate how biofuel can positively impact me and everyone else at a personal level.

Rebrand – Lastly, biofuel startups need to directly address the early missteps and knocks against the industry openly and honestly. Acknowledge the problems and show what you’re doing to fix them. Continued support for current first-generation corn-based ethanol production is a non-starter. It’s an unsustainable industry propped up by bad public policy and pols beholding to the agri-biz lobby and Iowa caucus goers. It’s a battle that can’t be won in the long term.

This requires re-branding. Second-generation biofuel companies need to set themselves apart from their first-generation legacy with branding that communicates how they are different…how they are better. The branding should communicate the industry’s future vision. Today, biofuel startups attempt to differentiate based on their intellectual property and production methods. But who really cares which bacteria or enzymes are best for digesting cellulosic biomass, or which algae strains yield the most oil? Most of us don’t. We have faith you’ll figure out the science. Just show us the way forward.

The growing attacks on biofuel could have the negative effect of stymieing national and global biofuel policies at a time when breakthroughs in sustainable biofuel production are nearing commercial reality. The biofuel industry needs to reclaim the megaphone and deliver a clear, crisp message that communicates its benefits in a personal way.

eBay might be kinda sorta green

eBay is going public about going green (surprise), announcing a Green Team “committed to doing even more to help the world buy, sell and think green every day.” But will the green tint stick?

Well, they’ve got a huge solar power installation. Their business happens to promote reuse, which is better than recycling. They pay for cradle-to-cradle packaging and carbon credits. And who’s to say their heart isn’t in the right place? But beyond that…?

Well, there are plenty of newly manufactured consumer items for sale on their site. A lot of small parcels zooming all around the world 24 x 7 (some $2,000 in goods per second, in fact) doesn’t do much in the way of reducing fossil fuel consumption. And, as the New York Times points out, the ad campaign will be on virgin paper. Ouch! The article proves yet again that even modest pretensions to green goodness are subject to scrutiny.

Credit eBay for doing some good work. But from a marketing perspective, it’s hard to own the green leadership mantle when, by all appearances, your carbon footprint is about the same as everyone else’s.