With very little in the green movement being regulated, it's not hard for any company with ambition and foresight to put a green spin on its products or services. Going green is a smart strategy, but its popularity has jaded some consumers. However, an advantage for tech companies is that their eco-strategies are often reflected in clean-tech business practices, as well. At a time when greenwashing concerns have raised some doubts about the movement's sincerity, a company that has implemented eco-conscious business practices into its operations can show that for it, going green isn't just a marketing strategy.
Yet the complexity surrounding clean-tech practices calls for skill and strategy in communicating them effectively. Though implementing green tech adds credibility, touting one's green horn too loudly can threaten it. In addition, clean-tech installations are often motivated, at least in part, by long-term cost savings. Further, if a company advocates its clean tech, it must communicate the green installations without bogging the message down in technical details.
Despite these challenges, the public and media are increasingly holding companies accountable for their environmental footprints, giving those that can communicate their clean-tech practices a definite edge.
Escaping the hype
Echelon, a San Jose, CA-based networking company providing products and systems that can monitor and save energy, was recently faced with telling its clean-tech story when UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon toured its facilities to bring attention to energy-saving technology. Ban and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) visited Echelon's headquarters in July, where the company pointed out that the use of its own technology has resulted in reducing energy consumption in its 80,000-square-foot facility by 30% annually.
The company moved into its energy-efficient building in 2001, long before the latest environmental craze hit. Considering that, Echelon carefully planned its communications strategy to emphasize that the 20-year-old company wasn't just the latest to jump on the green bandwagon.
"We're a little shy to go too far with it because it could put us into a place where it can look like we're just hype," says Steve Nguyen, director of corporate marketing at Echelon. "We don't want to be a 'hype' type of company."
Nick Olsson, VP at Echelon's AOR, Atomic PR, says the firm's strategy was not to publicize the visit other than to issue a release.
"It wasn't something that was any kind of publicity effort on our behalf," Olsson explains. "It was something that kind of evolved organically out of what people had been hearing."
When Atomic began representing Echelon about two years ago, the green movement was just starting to take hold, and the agency grappled with how to honestly capitalize on the trend.
"What we tried to do with Echelon is not to make them a green technology company per se," Olsson says, "but to get them into the dialogue because [energy saving] is just one piece of what they do."
Not surprisingly, this summer's influential endorsement gave the company noted visibility, causing its stock to spike significantly in one week. "We don't really want to do that," Nguyen points out. "We want this to be long-term play." The key to achieving a long-term message is to stay close to the story and not to overhype, he adds.
A simplified story
Considering the complicated technology involved, Atomic focuses its messaging for Echelon on what its technology can do for energy savings and then gives examples of its implementation, Olsson says. In telling this story, the agency shows the benefits of the energy-saving system at Echelon's headquarters, along with other famous places with the technology, ranging from the Louvre Museum in Paris to San Francisco's BART transit system.
Yet when the public thinks about saving energy, much of its gaze still falls upon hybrid cars, wind, or solar energy. Part of Echelon's communications challenge was to show the public that a company can be eco-conscious by simply using its energy effectively. But the energy-efficiency message lacks the innovative and futuristic angle of alternative-energy stories.
"So unlike solar, wind, or nuclear power, Echelon enables energy efficiency - an alternative clean-energy source that is here now, working inside smart buildings, homes, utilities, and cities around the world," explains Kenneth Oshman, chairman and CEO at Echelon.
"If you're going to do alternative fuels, you should invest heavily in alternative fuels," Nguyen notes. "But you can't leave what's on the table untapped - and that's where we come in."
By networking its systems, including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and security, Echelon can control its usage in way that allows it to respond to energy crises in minutes.
"When the California Energy Commission sends us a signal that we need to shed some load, we are able to automatically shed 30% of load in our building in less than three minutes," says Beatrice Yormark, Echelon's president and COO.
But explaining this process can leave many people scratching their heads, especially because the term "networked" is confusing with meanings that can subtly vary with context.
"The toughest part for us has been [that] what we have is pretty complex to understand if you're not a technician or an engineer," Yormark explains. "What we have tried to do is make our messages very, very simple, basically saying to build a smarter more intelligent world, you can react to energy crises, or demand response more intelligently.
"I think the importance of our communication is to get people to have this sort of 'Aha!' experience," she adds.
Taking the lead
If Echelon's strategy is to send the public a simple green message that doesn't depict the company as an exclusively green establishment, others are hoping to make themselves leaders in the eco-conscious space.
Google has implemented initiatives that tackle most of the major green areas right now: solar panels on its building, energy-saving computer technology, and hybrid cars available for employees to use. The tech giant communicates those efforts mainly through its blogs, but because the company is so closely monitored by the media, press attention often quickly follows a post.
"It definitely helps create dialogue and creates awareness," says Diana Adair, global communications and public affairs manager at Google. "One of the reasons we wanted to communicate these programs externally is because it helps to encourage other companies to tackle these issues within their businesses."
Google has also hosted press events, inviting reporters to engage with the technology firsthand. Allowing journalists to see the technology in action helps to lessen skepticism that some may develop after being inundated with so many pitches about companies taking on green efforts.
"For today's company, being transparent about all these issues is the most basic tenet of being a socially responsible corporate citizen," Adair notes.
To be transparent, Google also posts a chart on its blog that shows the amount of energy the company generates from its solar panels, giving the public data on its environmental claims.
Communicating the measures internally has also boosted morale by strengthening employee pride about the company, she adds.
Yet for well-known brands that don't garner as much public interest as Google, communicating clean-tech efforts requires striking a balance between publicity and effective outreach.
Hitachi has developed a CSR Web site that explains its green efforts. The site lists eco-friendly programs, including publishing a CSR report and, this year, adding a certification program to facilities that meet certain green standards.
"It's something that has always been ingrained in the Hitachi culture, but is only now being recognized," says Gerard Corbett, the company's VP of branding, about the sudden spotlight on its green business practices.
Though Hitachi communicates those practices to the public, the company doesn't consider it a major part of its business strategy.
"We've only recently communicated in a more robust way with our constituents about it," notes Corbett. "Hitachi is basically an engineering organization - we're not a marketing organization. So we just tend to do things and not publicize them in a way that many other companies do."
Even so, Corbett says the company is taking a more active role in communicating Hitachi's socially responsible efforts to its various publics, yet it continues to be careful not to push its green practices too hard.
"If you're too overt about it, people are going to see right through it," he says. "In this era of branding being critically important to a company's success, we're looking at it as something that we must communicate."
Like Google, Hitachi's clean-tech practices have had a positive impact on the company's internal image.
"We're making our employees more aware of it because they are on the front lines with our constituents and very able spokespeople in this regard," Corbett adds.
Because climate change dominates green coverage, companies that are eliminating greenhouse gas emissions can easily tie their efforts into a larger message that covers everything from the planet to geopolitics. Lehigh Technologies, a Naples, FL-based rubber powder manufacturer and distributor, operates an "environmentally neutral" plant in Georgia. The company's technology takes scrap rubber and then uses nitrogen to transform it into an ultra-fine powder.
"Most of what they use at the plant is liquid nitrogen, and the only thing that is venting at the plant is gaseous nitrogen," says Tony Cialone, founder and COO at Lehigh. Because the air is already 78% nitrogen, there is no carbon footprint, exempting the company from needing a wastewater, solid waste, or air pollution permit to operate.
"It's easy to go out and say you're green, but what we want to do is be very specific about it and have quantifiable statements," he says.
Lehigh hired an environmental firm to measure the company's carbon footprint at its plant and then figure out how using its products could help customers offset their carbon footprints.
"With that kind of quantifiable information, we can start communicating," Cialone adds, noting that the efforts primarily target customers and the media.
More than just green
Yet a key to communicating green tech is knowing when it's time to scale the green message back. Echelon's strategy is to be up-front that it's not exclusively in the business of green. Though the company's facility has installed its own technology that saves energy, the technology can be used to serve functions that aren't directly green. Rather than spinning these as eco-initiatives, the company openly admits the multiple purposes of its technology.
"I think people are abusing the green message," Yormark says. "Everybody now figures it is a cool message, and the oddest things are now green. We are very careful not to abuse it - we're not only focused on the idea that everything in the world has to be geared toward efficiency."
To avoid losing the impact of its message to the chic green chorus, Echelon cautiously pulls back its green message in areas where its technology is more about operational efficiency than the environment.
"I don't want us to get lost in a crowd of just blathering away on this whole idea that everything is about energy," Yormark notes. "I think that does get old, hackneyed, and very suspicious."
How tech companies can communicate green
The majority of your public won't care how the particular technology you're using works. They want to know what it does and, even more important, its environmental benefit.
Take a different angle
As stories with green angles become more and more common, companies that have a fresh perspective are going stand out from the crowd. This can be achieved by acknowledging that your company's green efforts are not perfect solutions, but that they do make sense for the company's overall business strategy.
Strengthen your claims of clean tech with data that cites how much energy you are saving, or by how much carbon emissions have been reduced. Whenever possible, generate these numbers from an independent firm. While it's important to make these figures known, overpromotion can easily backfire in the green space.
Use social media
In addition to the traditional press, use new-media resources to get your message out. Much of the green movement is happening online, so set up a social networking page that connects with other socially conscious organizations, reach out to bloggers, and use online videos.
Know your limits
Chances are your clean-tech program isn't going to save the world, so be honest about that. Acknowledge its limits, and keep claims in perspective. It is a bigger PR gaffe to overreach a clean-tech claim than it is to acknowledge that your current technology has limits.