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The Importance of Messaging in Clean Energy Innovation

By Peter Bronski, Guest Author

In late April 2016, RMI hosted the third annual eLab Accelerator. Described as a boot camp for electricity innovation, the four-day intensive work session brought together 13 teams from across North America—from North Carolina to Ottawa and California to New York—to work on new business models, energy innovation districts, and novel ways to value distributed energy resources. Together with RMI facilitators, Reos Partners, and a panel of expert faculty (including the author of this post), they sped progress on their respective efforts. This is one of their stories.

RMI will be hosting the next Accelerator event in April of 2017. Applications are being accepted until January 13, 2017. For more information, or to apply, please visit the Accelerator website. You can watch a short video about Accelerator here.

If you’ve ever worked in retail or ever gone shopping, then you’ve undoubtedly heard the maxim “the customer is always right.” Well, when it comes to clean energy innovation, here’s another: “the customer—or, more accurately, the audience—is what matters.”

When we talk about innovation—with eLab, in the context of the U.S. electricity system—we’re talking about fundamental change in the system. Innovation involves change from the status quo to a new and ideally better reality, the outcome of said innovation. Crossing the bridge between those two points is a journey that people won’t take without some form of substantial motivation, whether regulatory, economic, emotional, or other. And that is especially true of transformative change in the electricity system.

The Art of Persuasion, and the “What” vs. the “So What”

Ultimately, most forms of motivation boil down to persuasion: convincing your audience that a change from X to Y is worth it. It’s there, at the core of persuasion, that the issue of audience-centric messaging matters critically.

Messaging too often succumbs to the slippery slope of wonky navel gazing, especially in the realm of electricity and clean energy innovation. Messaging content drifts into dry, technical descriptions of distributed energy resources and the data-driven specifications of, say, solar-plus-storage microgrids. Such descriptions are wonderful at doing justice to the “what.”

Yet humans are emotional, behavioral creatures. We often make decisions based on our heart, rather than our head. Messaging, then, needs to speak first and foremost to the “so what.” Why does a particular clean energy innovation matter? How does it vault me from today’s status quo to the bright promise of a better tomorrow?

The 3 C’s of Messaging: Company, Customer, and Cause

Observing how brands orient and message themselves in the market can be instructive. I often think of messaging as having one of three dominant orientations: the company, the customer, or the cause. In practice, messaging can hybridize these, but for now let’s consider them in isolation.

  • Company: For some brands, the dominant messaging is inherently about the company itself. Think about Intel’s famous “Intel Inside,” or Ford’s famous moniker “Built Ford Tough,” or BMW’s claim that it makes “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” These messages are first and foremost about the company and its products or offerings.
  • Customer: Other brands make their messaging centrally about their customers. Take Nike’s legendary customer admonishment to “Just Do It,” or point-of-view video camera company GoPro’s direction to “Be A Hero,” or Burger King’s invitation to “Have It Your Way.” Each of these messages is about the customer, not the company.
  • Cause: Still other brands make the messaging about more than themselves and/or their customers. They make it about a greater movement or cause, whether it’s disruptive innovators overturning incumbents or some larger, value-driven cause. Consider Tesla, redefining and electrifying the future of transportation. Or consider a company like Whole Foods as a vanguard of the natural foods movement. Or take CrossFit, redefining fitness and what it means to go to the gym. All three of these companies have built intensely loyal communities of followers, in part because they’re about a cause. They involve their audience in something they care about and that is greater than themselves.

One of these messaging orientations isn’t inherently better than the others. What matters is that the messaging speaks to the values, motivations, pain points, etc. of the audience. Reconsider Ford’s “Built Ford Tough” slogan. When Ford’s flagship F-150 pickup truck switched from all-steel construction to include aluminum, Ford knew its audience and cleverly got ahead of any concerns they’d have by proclaiming it “military-grade aluminum.” Why? Because “military-grade” = “tough,” and Ford = “Built Ford Tough.”

Digital cameras provide another useful case study. Years ago, marketing researchers contrasted the strikingly different ways two digital camera manufacturers messaged their respective cameras’ features. One listed technical descriptions, such as megapixels of sensor size, milliwatt-hours of battery life, and megabytes of storage. The other translated such technical specifications into frames of reference far more meaningful to their consumer audience, such as resolution good enough to print poster-size pictures, battery life that’ll last ten hours or more, and storage sufficient to capture 400 pictures. You can guess which brand proved more resonant with customers when surveyed.

Lessons for—and from—Accelerator

So what does all this have to do with the teams that attend eLab Accelerator? Consider a team’s poignant experience from 2015.

One team arrived from rural Bloomfield, Iowa, with a clear goal: building on an ongoing downtown revitalization effort, they endeavored to become a net-zero community “through innovative approaches in energy efficiency adoption, distributed generation implementation, and public-private partnerships.” In other words, they came to Accelerator with a strong definition of the “what,” but hadn’t necessarily translated that into the “so what.” Crafting the messaging for the latter would be crucial for building community support once they returned home.

One afternoon at Accelerator, we temporarily set aside any discussion of energy and instead answered a very different set of questions: What are sources of pride for the residents of Bloomfield? What are the community’s values? What do residents care about? What concerns do they have?

I heard stories of resilience, durability, bootstrapping self-sufficiency, and “I can fix it myself” independence. I also heard of powerful community ties and mutual support among residents for whom the pioneer spirit and ethos still ran strong. And I heard stories of the preservation and renovation of Bloomfield’s 130-year-old Davis County Courthouse tower, which became a rallying point for the community.

And there, in those themes, the team’s messaging revealed itself. They then refined that messaging over their remaining time at Accelerator. They were Energy Independent Bloomfield. They had a clear and resonant shared vision: “Creating a new foundation for prosperity through local energy innovation.” And they had an equally powerful mission: “We are on a path to be an energy-independent community through Bloomfield’s legacy of resourcefulness and excellence to ensure health, prosperity, and resiliency for the next 150 years.”

Such language was a world apart from their initial technical description of becoming a net-zero community through distributed generation implementation, and admirably so. They focused on their audience, set aside the “what,” and answered the critical question of “so what,” and so took an important step toward winning the support of their community for clean energy innovation.

Peter Bronski (peter.bronski@us.panasonic.com) is the head of marketing and content strategy for the Energy Solutions Group and CityNOW smart city initiative at Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company. He previously served as editorial and marketing director at Rocky Mountain Institute. In 2017, he’ll serve as a member of the eLab Accelerator faculty for the third consecutive year. Opinions from guest authors are not intended to reflect the opinions of all eLab Accelerator event attendees.