Large tree with sun behind it. Field in the foreground with solar panels.

Why Should Clean Energy Companies Invest in Branding

September 14, 2023

I have often been asked to just “make a logo.” The potential client wanted the result of a brand strategy without putting in the work of defining their brand. It was split whether they walked away still “just wanting a logo” or they’d see the value in going through the process after I’d explained what was involved in a branding exercise.

In The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier writes, “a brand is not what you say it is, but what they say it is.” No matter what you want your brand to be, the final arbiter of your brand is public perception.

I can think of no example so stark to illuminate this as a moment several years ago at a Sustainable Brands conference. I was in the audience at a session where one of the panelists represented Phillip Morris. Yes, THAT Phillip Morris. I honestly don’t remember what the topic of the session was. But I do remember multiple questions from the audience to the panelist asking about how the company would take responsibility for the damage their products have done and were still doing. She kept answering with some variation of, “That’s just it. We have the opportunity to be anything we want to be going forward.” After the third such evasion, the audience laughed. We weren’t laughing with her.

No matter what the company determined internally they wanted their brand to be, that room full of people already had strong feelings about what the brand represented. The company failed to take into account they would need to address the negative baggage from the “previous” brand before they could begin to change brand perceptions. The panelist was never going to shift the room because the room already had strong brand feelings, and what she was attempting to convey was diametrically opposed to those feelings. She wanted us to join her on a new brand journey. But the audience still held all their brand baggage and hadn’t yet set the baggage down. Nor were they ready to buy new luggage.

I can hear you asking, “if my brand is what they say it is, why bother with more than a logo? It seems like a waste of time.” Here’s the thing to remember: we can influence “what they say it is”. It is much easier to influence if your brand values are clear from day one, versus convincing your audience to shift their way of thinking once they’ve decided for you what your brand means.

Why would a clean energy organization want to influence the perception of their brand? If they “just do good work” or “just make a great product” won’t that be enough to create a good brand reputation? The answer is – it depends, but likely not.

Company A makes an inverter – the brains of a PV system. They make a solid product. It works when turned on and people buy it. They don’t invest in a branding strategy because either 1. they’re meeting their sales goals each year, or 2. confuse their investment in sales and marketing as an investment in branding. People buy the product because it has the features they want and is at the right price point. It’s all fine until the year quality misses a bad batch of parts and inverters start failing in the field.

What happens next? The company has invested their dollars in marketing and selling the product, not building the organization’s reputation. They have built no brand loyalty. Their entire identity is tied to that failed product. Even if the company takes all the correct steps to make it right in the field, they will likely experience impacts from it for years as people no longer trust the product. Their brand is defined by the negative emotions people experience around the failure of the inverters.

Re-read that last sentence. Yes, branding is emotional. Even in the technical fields of solar and energy storage.

Company B also makes an inverter. They also make a solid product. It also works when turned on and people buy it. However, they’ve invested in branding their company. They have a vision for their impact on the world beyond their P&L. Their guiding vision is working to ensure the energy we use supports a healthy life for all. Right now, that means they make inverters to support the energy transition to clean, decarbonized energy, contributing to healthier air. Company B works with vendors and buyers to contribute to that vision, investing in step-by-step plans to help vendors and buyers to go carbon neutral. They invite others into this vision with them through education and support. Their marketing for their inverter not only shows how their inverter is awesome but shows how it fits into this bigger picture. Others who support this same vision feel good when they purchase this particular inverter. They have created a tribe sharing this vision.

When the same thing that happened to Company A happens to Company B and inverters fail in the field, Company B has a distinct advantage. They have built their company brand beyond the product. They have created a tribe with a well of positive emotion toward the company, not the product. This well helps offset the negative. The negative emotion doesn’t go away but is softened by a pre-disposition towards being gentler with those one associates with our tribe.

Company B can lose this advantage by not handling the failed inverters well, by ignoring the issue, or covering everything up. Any of these tactics show disrespect to the tribe they’ve built.

Branding flow chart image

The impacts of the brand process are extensive. Each step influences the next as well as other steps. The above chart is a simplified visual of how interdependent each step in the process is.

No matter where you are on your company journey, you can invest in brand strategy. It’s easier to set goals and a vision when a company is new. That rarely happens. Most startups are wholly focused on their go-to-market plan and revenue to keep the lights on. For the first while, your brand will be led by “what they say it is.”

Eventually, it’ll be time to take a hard look at your clean energy brand. Developing a strategy to help steer “what they say it is” does not always mean a new name and visual identity. Companies put off branding for far too long because they don’t want to change their name or logo and are sure that’s what it means to go through a branding strategy process. At that point, the company boat is caught in the rapids and, for a time, attempting to steer might mean merely pushing off the rocks.

Understanding your company core, your vision, your mission, value propositions, brand promise, key customer groups, and competitive landscape is step one in allowing you to shape “what they say it is.” Step two – defining a strategy to present this core messaging to the world – will be for another post.

Do you have questions about your solar or energy storage brand? Aimee Tuck has over 20 years of experience in branding and the clean energy space, and is ready to answer your questions