On Branding Clean Energy

One of the first questions anyone will ask a supplier of battery technology is “Is your application front-of-meter or behind-the-meter?” Sure, where the battery logically sits relative to the grid is important, but yawn.

A more interesting question, at least to me, is

“Is your product front-and-center or back-of-mind?”

The first is a question about business models, which of course needs to be answered. The second is about how people understand and interact with the product. That’s about perception and ultimately brand awareness.

Let’s be honest. Most people take energy for granted, and don’t give a second thought as to where they get their energy. They just expect it to be there.

Water was in a similar place.

Years ago, people received their drinking water from the faucet. They expected water pressure to be there, and took their water source for granted. Occasionally the water turned brackish, and people got upset. Then, the problem was fixed and everybody went back to normal.

Exactly where electricity is today.

Believe it or not, Evian started bottling water in 1908. Evian didn’t really take off until plastic bottles came into mass production in 1969. Danone introduced Evian to the US in 1978, at which point drinking water became an issue of quality for an ever increasing number of consumers.

We all know what happened. Evian became the leading brand of trusted, high-quality water. Other major brands followed… Dasani, Fiji, Smart Water. Today, many people refuse to drink water from the tap.

Unfortunately, the situation in Flint underscores the point; the sourcing of water is really important.

Electricity is following the same trajectory in many ways.

People understand that energy comes from different sources. But, there isn’t a brand of energy that is clearly differentiating itself as the highest, most reliable quality for consumers, and thus people don’t really have a lot of options.

Yes, SolarCity and Sunrun are helping people put solar on on their roofs. I don’t get the sense, though, that people are assigning a ton of value to SolarCity and Sunrun as their long-term partners in generating better energy.

Unfortunately, from a brand perspective, they feel more like installers than partners. And, the reality is that when SolarCity customers come home at night they’re using electricity produced from coal, gas or nuclear. That’s sub-awesome.

Powerwall is the only product I see that is starting to brand the idea of permanently clean energy. It’s the Evian. It’s also a beautiful product that people are already going nuts for. It’s inspirational. It’s aspirational. It’s a trusted source.

It’s a physical product that consumers see in their daily life that makes them feel better about themselves. Yes, it’s expensive and, at this point, only for those folks that live on the higher-end economically. But for that crowd, it’s a status symbol that makes them want to take other people into their garage. (And, PowerWall’s cost will come down over time.)

Think about the brand distinctions. Really, really important.

In large part, clean energy has a branding problem that needs to be solved. That must be addressed in order to continue making progress into the mass market.

I’m looking to help fix that. Fixing it is about giving consumers meaningful products that factor into their daily lives and generate passion. It’s about creating products and brands that people constantly appreciate, understand and engage.

From where I sit, it’s about creating something front-and-center that lives in the path of our daily lives… not hidden utility that falls to back-of-mind. A clean energy brand and product that people understand and want for themselves and for their children. An enabling partner to their healthy and happy lives. A power symbol.

This post deserves one closing note. I fully recognize the negative impact that water bottles have had on the environment. This post is about product quality distinctions and brand as a vehicle to capture that. The above is not intended to be, and should not be considered, an endorsement of plastic water bottles. In fact, I very much hope we can find and scale more sustainable strategies for high quality drinking water.

Brian Lakamp