European renown has helped its US entry, but company still faces some startup-like challenges
Greenhouse guilt has taken hold in the US, and suddenly people are looking for ways to repent for lapses like SUVs and jet-setting vacations. Even established companies like Google, Travelocity, and Expedia are touting carbon neutral initiatives.
Buzz only goes so far, however, and beyond the lure of the words "carbon neutral," many still don't understand what it really means or how its standards are set.
This is where the London-based CarbonNeutral Company saw an opportunity. It has tackled carbon neutrality in Europe for a decade, even trademarking a variation of the term. Last month, the company ventured across the pond, opening offices in New York and San Francisco.
"We've seen, since January, that the interest from the US companies has been incredible," says Mark Armitage, US president of The CarbonNeutral Company.
Now the company finds itself in a unique communications position. On one hand, it's establishing itself in the emerging American market the same way a startup would, but with the experience of a mature brand. The company has also registered the term Carbon Neutral, spelled with an upper case "C" and "N."
On the other hand, the public's confusion about those words isn't unwarranted - the carbon neutral industry is largely unregulated, without set standards. This means unlike their "organic" counterparts, each carbon neutral company must educate its clients and public about what the term means to them.
"There is a big education job to be done and PR is a big tool for us," says Sue Welland, founder and creative director of the company.
In this case, to be called "Carbon Neutral," clients have to go through a four-step process: first, measuring their carbon footprint; second, reducing carbon emissions internally; third, achieving the remaining carbon neutral balance by purchasing carbon credits; finally, communicating this process to its publics, Armitage says.
"And the way to get ROI must be to communicate what you've done," he says. "It can be a complex subject to communicate and therefore we help people synthesize their messages down to clear, simple statements and messages for key audiences."
But the company rarely takes over the role of PR and marketing, he adds. Rather, it acts as an advisor to a client's agency.
"When a company puts its head up and says, 'Listen we're carbon neutral,'" Armitage explains, "we know the 15 questions they'll get asked. And we make sure the messaging that they do not only answers those questions, but does it in a robust manner."
Part of the company's positioning strategy in the US was targeting a few markets that showed the most interest in carbon neutrality: media, finance, legal, construction, and overall brand leaders. Then CarbonNeutral embarked on a press tour organized by its PR agency Kwittken & Company.
"Because we are experienced and the market has been crying out for some clarity and insight, a lot of people have wanted to talk to me," says Armitage.
Outreach efforts have targeted high-level decision-makers - those who Armitage suspects will ultimately be calling the shots about whether to go carbon neutral.
"Lack of awareness is an issue for us," Armitage adds. "We haven't been operating here, and whether there are other people who are bigger or smaller than us, it doesn't matter - they've been here."
The company's track record in Europe also allowed it to dip into resources most "startups" don't have - European accounts with subsidiaries and partners in the US, he says.
"Once we start working with clients - as we found in Europe - your brand and your proposition snowballs," Armitage notes. "I'd much prefer to tell people who we're working with and what we're doing, rather than telling people what we could do."
Then there are the challenges of scale. The large and fragmented US market demands a high number of resources for a company establishing itself. While the European market is farther along the green education curve, the US is still learning the basics. Even so, information is moving quicker than ever.
"It has taken 10 years to get to where we are in Europe," says Welland. "It could take [the US] a year. We're in a spot where climate change is hitting national headlines."
The company is also working with organizations that do surveys on what the words "Carbon Neutral" mean to companies that use them.
"That's quite important because we registered the term," Welland notes. "When we registered it, nobody knew what it was."
That's no longer a problem in Europe. But in the US, businesses are still grappling with what it means and how to achieve it.
"The market here is still at its early formulation," Armitage says. "It's quite fragmented and slightly confused. People are looking for clarity, standards, and experience."
At a glance:
Company: The CarbonNeutral Company
US President: Mark Armitage
Headquarters: In the US - New York; In the UK - London
Key Trade Titles: E&E News PM, Environmental Business Journal, Energy Economics
PR Budget: Undisclosed
Market Communications Team: Sue Wellend, founder, creative director; Sarah Brown, PR manager
Agency: Kwittken & Company