A client once flat-out refused to let us drive to a customer interview in California’s Central Valley. We knew something had ticked him off the minute we met him in the parking lot. “You’re kidding me, right? You show up in that thing and no one’s even gonna talk to you, much less take you seriously. Jesus!” Exasperated, he turned to his VP. “Gonna have to fit ’em in the truck.”
The problem? My business partner’s new Prius. Apparently, the client thought plant managers for municipal engine facilities wouldn’t take kindly to brand consultants (pansies) driving a foreign (what?!) hybrid (get a rope).
As five of us crowded into the cab of his Chevy pickup, he spat good-naturedly. “And for chrissakes, don’t talk about ‘green energy.’ Keep that stuff out of it — no environmental crap. These guys don’t wanna hear it!” It was an odd request, considering his company engineered components which could not only upgrade and extend the life of a 60-year-old industrial engine indefinitely, but also convert it to biodiesel. My partner and I exchanged glances and kept silent.
Clean energy has a major image problem. Among skeptics, its value is debatable, at best. But as the experience with our client illustrates, it’s worse than that: For detractors, clean energy options are less powerful, less masculine, less authentic, less American. Clean energy, and environmentally friendly options in general, are in trouble when it comes to broad acceptance in the mass market — and the branding profession is uniquely positioned to change the odds.
Ironically, our best bet for helping the environment might just be to convince eco-friendly brands to stop talking about it.
Repositioning the Category
Climate change is the most pressing environmental issue of our time. As global temperatures rise, it’s imperative that we invest in solar and clean energy solutions in order to cut CO2 emissions and reverse the damage being caused by greenhouse gasses. Government, business, and citizens must pull together to save the environment — and ourselves. Solar power: Energy for a greener planet.
If you’re nodding your head as you read this, there’s something you should know: We lost half the American public at “climate change.”
A few dispiriting facts: while 70% of the U.S. population believes climate change is happening, only half believe it’s caused by human activity. And in the latest Pew poll — prioritizing issues the public feels the government should be focused on solving — climate change ranks 18th out of 21. (Concerns like terrorism and the economy rank highest.)
In a recent Sierra Club article chronicling his journey from climate denier to climate activist, former Congressman Bob Inglis explains part of the problem: As a Republican, he initially thought it was all “a bunch of hooey.” If Al Gore was talking, he was against it.
According to Inglis, a major problem is that, for decades, the climate conversation has been led by the left, using language that reflects progressive values. Framed in liberal ideology and steeped in leftist politics, it’s an issue half the country rejects as soon as it’s raised. Approaches to convince the right that climate change 1.) is real and 2.) needs to be addressed must shift to be effective.
Progressive messages about interdependence, pulling together, saving the planet, and eco-justice don’t resonate with conservatives — who instead value individualism, American ingenuity, free enterprise, boot-strap prosperity, and hard work. Worse, Inglis warns that the right sees progressives as self-righteous alarmists who envision an apocalyptic future in which “we all walk instead of drive, do with less, and eat bugs.” It’s easy to laugh here, but the perception is real — and that’s a real problem. We need to be on the same side.
What would get a conservative audience excited about solar power? Let’s reposition the pitch:
America needs energy independence, job creation, and clean air and water for working families. And Republicans are poised to be innovators in the field — since free enterprise can solve problems more efficiently than big government. American ingenuity applied to solar power will mean economic growth and prosperity while ensuring our beautiful country stays that way. Solar power: Energy, made in America.
Conservatives used to own the idea of conservation — and could, again. There’s nothing in right wing ideology to prevent investment in conservation-minded enterprise. These days, however, the divide is so deepthat even otherwise staunch conservatives who challenge the party line are suspect: Hostility toward climate activism cost Ingliss his seat in 2010.
Changing the Conversation
Reframing clean energy is one thing. But the truth is, partisan disagreement isn’t the whole picture. Global warming is the type of threat humans are worst at dealing with — our lack of motivation to solve long-term, somewhat abstract problems is well documented. Few people believe they’ll be affected by climate change personally — or that individual actions make a difference. Even among believers, the issue lacks urgency. Which puts policies and products designed to address climate change at a potential disadvantage in the mass market.
The fact of the matter is, climate change doesn’t sell. It’s time to talk about something else. But what?
What’s your first thought when you hear the name Tesla? Chances are the words “fast,” “cool,” and “expensive” come to mind before “environmentally friendly.” While a Tesla car runs on clean energy, it’s never the first thing consumers think of. In fact, the Tesla owners I interviewed admitted that environmental impact was not the main driver in their purchase decision. Performance, design, and convenience (hello, carpool lane) topped the list, with the clean energy aspect as a welcome plus. While egregious styling and clunky operations make most clean air vehicles feel like a penalty, Tesla’s sleek lines and “ludicrous” mode inspire admiration, envy, and internet posts. It’s not just the right thing to drive — it’s the cool thing to drive. A Tesla is sexy.
And in their latest move, the company has absorbed SolarCity into an impressive portfolio of vertically integrated systems — including home storage batteries and high-end solar tiles — newly branded as Tesla Energy.
To date, branding in solar has been uniformly mediocre. Unexceptional naming conventions abound (Sunthis, Solarthat), with brand identities ranging from dull and engineering-oriented to generic lifestyle concepts — easily confused with roofing companies, or bland home-furnishing stores promoting a summer sale. When something does manage to stand out, like this funny commercial for Sunrun (whose name sounds like a nasty digestive malfunction), that old, tired progressive framing is firmly in place — with a nebbish liberal insisting he’s in it for the money. Sunrun invokes the frame even as the ad “rejects” it.
Growing clean energy is going to require moving from commodity-based thinking into the realm of self-image and aspiration. The majority of clean brands currently rely on the category itself to sell products, rather than moving forward with a bold agenda of their own. Think of another market — athletic shoes, for example. Foot Locker depends on consumer interest in the brands they carry to draw people into their stores, rather than their own efforts. (Fair enough; they’re an outlet, not a manufacturer). Nike, on the other hand, creates desire for what would otherwise be a niche product (how many people actually need a $225 pair of cross trainers?) — thereby redefining and expanding the category. SolarCity rebranded as Tesla Energy will do the same thing, adding attributes of innovation and style carried over from their line of luxury cars. When more brands begin to behave similarly, we can expect interest in the category to increase exponentially.
Tesla has done what all clean tech products should do: start a conversation that people want to have. Rather than leading with environmental impact, the brand speaks to performance, innovation, and high design values.
When the American auto industry follows suit to make clean air vehicles desirable across the market spectrum, emissions will plummet. Nearly a third of CO2 emissions come from automobiles. With trucks (some of worst polluters) comprising 59.5 % of car sales in 2017, it’s great to see Tesla developing one. Electric motors are ideal for providing low-end torque — perfect for hauling heavy payloads. It’s an idea long overdue, but we’re going to need more players to change the game. With the price of batteries plummeting, the only thing preventing electric Jeeps, Fords, and Chevy pickups from dominating the market in a few years is category perception.
Talking about What Matters Most
And speaking of Chevys, my client — remember him — the one who wouldn’t let us drive a Prius to the power plant?
We listened to him. We listened to his customers. And we rebranded the company. There was a lot of “green” messaging we could have brought to the conversation. Want to reduce a power plant’s carbon footprint? Try keeping 40 tons of iron out of landfill by upgrading your engine instead of replacing it. Or convert it to run on biodiesel — all while outperforming any other entry in its class.
We didn’t talk about the environmental aspect of the Powerhouse offer, because it didn’t matter to the audience. What did matter was innovation, performance, expertise, reliability, and pride in American industry. So, yeah. We talked about that.
Changing the Game
Creating a groundswell of demand for clean products and systems will go a long way towards solving climate change. But mass market consumers will never want them because they’re “the right thing to do.” We’ll want them because they’re high-performance. Because they’re smart. Because they make us independent. Because they’re stylish, convenient, reliable, rebellious, or cool. The key is framing and persuasion. This is where the branding profession excels — and where we can add the most value.
Education is about facts. Brands are about feelings. We are failing as a nation to change our behavior to address climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that we need to. Activists and progressives may dislike the idea of appealing to consumer’s short-term interests and self image in order to get them to do what’s best for the planet. But providing accurate information doesn’t change behavior, because it’s too easily discounted. People don’t want to feel lectured — they want to feel smart. And they want to know their needs and interests are understood.
Sustainability shouldn’t be an apology positioning — expecting that people are willing to give up something for their values. As clean brands become as good or better than the alternatives, shedding sustainability as primary message will be key in crossing over from niche to mass markets. Clean energy needs to leapfrog environmental discussions and simply make products desirable.
It’s time. Let’s do this.
Kimberly Cross heads up Cakewalk Creative, a San Francisco branding consultancy. In addition to creating identities for brands like KFC and Quiznos, she’s interested in the intersection of branding and environmental issues. She’s currently collaborating with StoryCats on “The Sinking Manhattan: A Drinking Guide to Climate Change.”