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

Today, thecleantech sector – renewables, green transportation, green buildings,electric motors, energy efficiency – is finally growing fast enough topose a serious, market-disrupting competitor to traditional, status-quoindustries, 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 thepopularity and viability of solar, wind and energy efficiency asfoundational parts of our energy future.

Countering this assault will require stepped-up and far moreproactive public positioning efforts by cleantech. For this effort to be successful, however, the cleantech industry will have to connect withcustomers, 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 cleantechneeds to figure out a way to become more visceral and immediate andactually matter in peoples’ day-to-day lives. It needs to hit thepocketbook, 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 ofhis 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 totalk about it, and there are advertisers who want to bring theirmessages 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 bypeople with engineering backgrounds. These folks are often brilliant,and especially well equipped to drive the technical innovation thatgenerates much of the excitement around cleantech. The catch is thatthose extremely valuable engineering backgrounds demand numericalclarity and rigorous, empirical explanations for public relations andcorporate communications. The problem is that public relations, whilecritically important and valuable, is almost always indirect in itsnature, relying on influencing an environment in which many factors arebeyond our or our clients’ control.

As Emory University psychologist Drew Westen’s research has powerfully demonstrated, people are fundamentally not inclined towards making even bigdecisions, 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 politicalcommunications) 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 cleantechindustry hopes to create strong market positioning, customer credibility and continuing public support, it will need to communicate at apowerful, “gut” level the exciting things it is doing. We’ve been making this case to cleantech clients in private conversations for the pastseveral years, but Owen Thomas swooped in and explained it better thanwe ever had. Cleantech clients should put a lot of stock in what hesays, as Owen is exactly the sort of high-level journalist who cleantech companies often ask us to pitch.