Teach First, Sell Later

If you've ever ordered a Coke only to settle for a Pepsi or made a "Xerox" on a Canon copier, then you've experienced product commoditization.

From colas to copiers, some products become so familiar to us that we can barely distinguish among brands. To differentiate their commoditized products in the marketplace, brands often emphasize values and image over product specifications -- Coke "shares happiness;" Apple offers "old nerd" vs. "geek cool."

Many clean-tech companies can only dream of seeing their products achieve such levels of ubiquity. But to get off the ground, many cutting-edge green start-ups must first engage in an educational campaign to bring their audiences up to speed on the technology, before they start selling their brand.

We have been helping companies with unknown technologies or poorly understood products to educate targeted publics and establish their brands.

One company has developed a breakthrough technology that recycles CO2 into liquid fuel. But far from full-scale production, it needed to legitimize carbon recycling as a credible method for capturing and mitigating CO2 emissions.

Knowing that today's carbon debate centers largely on sequestration, it focused its marketing and public relations strategy around alternatives to sequestration. By using sequestration as an angle, the company was able to introduce its technology to key audiences and inject carbon recycling into the larger CO2 debate. From there, it was able to tout its brand as a thought leader in future carbon emissions control.

In another example, a new N.J.-based landscape design and build firm has a green roof product that has great environmental benefits. However, green roofs are largely misunderstood as a way to improve building performance. The company is not competing against other green roof installers so much as it is competing against a general lack of knowledge of green roofs in general.

Confident that Americans will come around to green roofs as many Europeans have, the company has engaged in a two part strategy -- first, to raise awareness of the benefits of green roofing, and second, to establish itself as New Jersey's premier green roof company.

As part of its strategy, the company reached out to the design and building community in a number of ways. To understand this audience, it conducted a survey that found that while most building design professionals considered stormwater runoff management an important design feature, green roofs were not a popular choice due to misconception about costs, benefits, and ease of installation.

Understanding these factors has helped this firm implement tactics to increase knowledge of the product. As green roof awareness grows, the brand will become recognized as the local leader in this product category.

High tech or relatively low tech, companies selling revolutionary or poorly understood products must first take the time to educate their audiences about the product itself, often putting their branding aside. During this process, they must be willing to engage in meaningful dialogue, understanding that both the pros and cons of their new technology or product will emerge. But prompt and factually based answers to tough questions will help position the benefits of a new product in the market and will ultimately establish the brand itself as a symbol of industry leadership.

2 comments about "Teach First, Sell Later ".
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  1. Maggie Anderson, March 17, 2010 at 11:40 a.m.

    Greg -- very useful information. I will be quoting you to a new "green" client who has the same challenge. The interactive digital media they are creating for "green" clients and others is social media that actually increases ROI (OMG!), but explaining how their service is way more than "just web design" is a challenge.

    Thanks for your perspective!

  2. Roger Wilson from The Conference Department, Inc., March 17, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.

    Greg- Xerox took off because they had a method of duplication that was remarkably easier and better than alternatives. Unless they have a similar obvious advantage, wouldn't green building materials suppliers be better off investing with trade associations in lobbying for building code mandates than putting money into proselytizing campaigns?

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