Following the collapse of solar cell manufacturer Solyndra, many speculate the path to success for cleantech brands will be far rockier. With Solyndra serving as a clear example of failed investment, it will be more important for companies in the sector to communicate their true value and worth to investors.
Will Brent, EVP of the clean technology practice at Weber Shandwick, says Solyndra should be taken as an example that companies in the sector need to be intent on under-selling and over-delivering, rather than hyping their promise and then failing to deliver on the value they communicated.
“This means there has to be serious thinking done around true differentiation and a clear path to commercialization,” he notes, adding that the failure also serves as a sign the industry is moving from a period of tech innovation to market innovation.
“With that mass adoption, corporate communications' focus is necessarily shifting toward building credibility, loyalty, engagement, and awareness,” he says.
As global economic instability makes the environment for raising money more challenging, solid communications tactics are crucial.
“After a ‘baby boom' of cleantech start-ups several years ago, the investment focus is more on growth equity,” Brent explains. “Being able to communicate your story and value proposition becomes that much more important.”
Investors are constantly pummeled with information, so cleantech companies must keep communications flowing consistently, as well as use that communication to differentiate the business, says Kimberly Kupiecki, SVP and head of cleantech at Edelman.
“Investors are making decisions based on the information they get and the perception of the company,” she observes. “It's important they get a steady stream of information about your company, otherwise you will be lost.”
Even if the company doesn't have big news to share, just being part of the conversation can be a useful way of keeping the company name and its ideas relevant.
“For example, if you're in a space where natural gas is important, you can talk about uses for it other than burning,” says Kupiecki. “It's important to just continue informing the conversation where you're credible.”
Like Brent, Kupiecki stresses managing expectations and transparency. One area where this is particularly important is communicating project time frames, which, for cleantech companies, are often long and drawn out over many months or years. It is key that investors and stakeholders understand what to expect in terms of time frames.
Another important aspect to communicate with investors is evidence of progress, such as technical milestones. Bringing media and other stakeholders to project sites to see physical progress is also advisable.
“Those things are important, especially if you can connect it to commercialization,” Kupiecki says.
Talking about and stressing company partnerships, especially if it is somewhat atypical, also helps bring legitimacy to the work a company is doing.
Edelman client SolarReserve received a federal loan guarantee at a notably unlikely time, on the heels of the Solyndra fallout. Rather than taking a reserved approach during the uproar in the wake of Solyndra, SolarReserve and Edelman adopted a more brazen tack and chose to highlight the ways one company's failure doesn't mean the entire industry is flawed.
For example, SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith made media appearances on outlets including CNN and Fox Business to talk about the company and provide a counterexample to Solyndra.
“Once investors saw the coverage, they felt very positive about SolarReserve,” Kupiecki says, who adds that even though Solyndra put the industry in a different position in terms of tax grants, from a public standpoint the affinity for solar is still high.
Joshua Reynolds, EVP and global tech practice director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says the first task of communications in this space is to hone in on the public's needs and expectations. Social media and research can help a company gain an understanding of what motivates the audience.
“What articles will already be written? What social media cycles are already in the works? Make yourself relevant to those,” he advises. “Figure out the connection between your vision and that of your audience.”
One of the biggest challenges in the cleantech space is managing hype and being sure not to over-promise.
“Talk about sustainable value and avoid the pitfall of over-promising in the early stages,” Reynolds says. “Talk about the long view more than the short view.”
He adds that it's crucial to specify which part of the cleantech challenge the company targets and explain why the innovation is important rather than spending a lot of time explaining technical details.
“For a start-up cleantech company or one about to launch itself to the public, there is this golden rule,” notes Reynolds. “You're only born once. Don't be born ugly. So get your story straight beforehand.”
What garners the most attention among media and political circles today is what Reynolds calls the “prosperity perspective” and balancing the planet's needs versus those of global economies. “What opportunities do cleantech innovations create for industries, jobs, energy security, and for curtailing the long-term costs of environmental degradation,” he says. “This perspective puts things into dollars and cents.”
Introducing ocean-powered energy
Last summer and fall, HB Agency worked to launch Ocean Thermal Energy, which works to commercialize and raise awareness about ocean-powered clean energy. A wide range of influencers were engaged across the industry, media, and investors.
MD Nicolas Boillot says HB focused on publicizing the venture's technology, as well as simplifying the concept of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) through a combination of media relations, messaging, strategic counsel, commenting on Web pieces, multimedia, and video work.
“OTEC is not a widely known form of clean-energy production,” says Ocean Thermal Energy's chief strategy and marketing officer Jim Greenberg. “We had to start from ground zero on awareness and over-come preconceived notions.”
The company emphasized integrity and honest communications. “That helps raise investor confidence,” says Boillot. “Investors are very savvy when it comes to too much exaggeration or over-promising.”
PR contributed to business success and the company is now in the project stage at various locations around the world. An IPO is also expected in the near future.
“Once people get educated about this, they get excited and want to support it,” Greenberg says. “This was about coming back to the messaging and identifying groups passionate about different issues.”
Ocean Thermal Energy has signed on as the seawater district cooling provider (air conditioning) for the Baha Mar Project, a Bahamas resort under construction. And along with being in talks with 10 countries to submit ocean thermal energy conversion proposals, it has also signed deals for a number of Caribbean plants.