Messaging is a critical part of the marketing strategy for any startup, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how messaging can be uniquely challenging for clean-tech businesses.
All startups have to wrestle with the inherent tension between the messages that drive early adoption and those that are effective in driving mainstream adoption. Early adopters want to hear that a product is “on the cutting edge”, while early majority buyers need to hear the soothing message that a product is “proven, reliable technology that delivers measurable results,” and late majority buyers only make a move once “everybody’s doing it.” The key to a robust strategy that can “cross the chasm” is a messaging hierarchy that allows sub-themes to change as the market develops without requiring a fundamental change in the positioning of the company’s core identity or values.
It seems to me that clean businesses face an additional layer of messaging complexity. That’s because early adopters of clean products—whether “dark greens” or “light greens”—respond to green messages that may have myriad semantic/historical connections to broader fringe themes that are anti-corporate, anti-global, anti-capitalist, and eco-activist. It is therefore tempting for early stage clean-tech startups to wrap themselves in the “green flag”, selling the company and the product simultaneously as a part of the green lifestyle, in order to maximize early adoption rates.
Of course the problem with this approach is that those same messages are a turn-off to early majority customers and are thus a barrier to mainstream market entry. Startups that make the “green flag” mistake will face the eventual prospect of re-branding the entire company—a process that can be unpleasant, expensive, and risky. Conversely, clean-tech startups that try to be too mainstream during early market stages may alienate green-oriented early adopters and hinder early market acceptance. Heather Rae at Cleantechblog has a nice post that touches on these issues about BP’s marketing efforts (and further shows that this is not just a startup marketing challenge).
I think the answer to this challenge is a carefully structured messaging hierarchy that integrates a set of distinct company, product, and segment marketing messages into a robust and flexible platform for communication. The key is to establish core company and product messages that will be effective with both early and late stage market customers. Product messages can be adjusted over time to address classic tech market message shifts from “cutting edge” to “reliable performance” to “standard issue.” Segment messages can be tailored over time to address the values shifts that accompany market development from “dark green” to “light green” to “practical green” and beyond.
I’m looking for good (and bad) examples of clean-tech messaging that help to explore these ideas. Anyone have an example to share?