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Creating brand experiences for cleantech companies

At the recent Cleantech Forum San Francisco, I had the opportunity to speak to cleantech startups about the importance of their brand in driving growth for their business. The opening session of the conference was Entrepreneur Coaching. Alongside Jeanette Jackson, who gave advice on commercialization challenges, and Terry Chuah, who focused on entrepreneurial leadership, I spoke to the conference attendees about the role their brand can play in helping them grow from concept to commercialization to growth and expansion.

The conference was filled with amazing companies bringing to market amazing technologies and products that are making our world more sustainable: reducing greenhouse gases by reducing food waste, creating meat from plants, electrifying vehicles, creating smarter roadways, scaling IoT, advancing CO2 utilization, creating biopolymers from methane. I was truly in awe of those who spoke and those in attendance.

All startups face challenges. But cleantech startups face an uphill battle. Many who spoke at the conference talked about how they don’t use the word “cleantech” when pitching their companies to investors, because it can scare them off. According to the Brookings Institution, between 2011 and 2016, venture capital investment in cleantech declined by nearly 30 percent, from $7.5 billion to $5.24 billion. In addition to a lower total amount invested, the number of deals fell from 649 in 2011 to 455 in 2016. The average deal sizes have been smaller, too.

But despite the investor hesitation on cleantech, there are big problems to solve to make this earth more sustainable, and many companies are on their way to solving them. At Symmetri, we believe that strong brands will help them get there.

I stressed three main points in my Entrepreneur Coaching session:

1. Your brand is the experience you create

Many think that defining your brand equates to creating a brand identity or brand identity design, such as your name or logo, or even a color palette or what the website looks like. These are all important elements, but a brand is defined by the emotional connection formed through the entire experience of your company or product. Your brand consists of all of the interactions that people have with it — including the many interactions that take place before ever talking with a salesperson.

Leading an executive coaching session at the Cleantech Forum

Leading the Executive Coaching session at the Cleantech Forum  

Certainly, face-to-face interactions — from initial sales meetings to in-person product demonstrations to people using your product — are the strongest forms of emotional connection. But your brand experience is also formed when prospective customers visit your website, check out your social media accounts, read about you in the press, or review your LinkedIn profile. Not to mention the way in which you provide ongoing support. All of these interactions and more shape the experience people have with your brand.

Since most businesses at the conference were startups, I emphasized that investing in your brand doesn’t require investing a significant amount of money (it can, and the amount should increase as you grow), but it does require investing time. Which takes me to my next point.

2. Solve problems in ways that others can’t

Because your brand is the experience you create, positioning is your guide. Positioning is how you want customers to think about your brand. And you want them to believe you are unique or different from your competition. Our advice for any brand is to solve problems in a way that others can’t. Many cleantech startups are solving technical problems in a way that nobody has done previously. If they are first to market (or second, or possibly third), that will give them leverage for a period of time. But soon, solving a category problem is no longer truly differentiating.

So my guidance was to make sure they understand the human needs of their customers. Which requires talking to customers. Listen to them. Observe them if possible. (To note: talking to customers is critically important for investors). For any customer, it’s not just about what your technology can do, it’s about what you can do to make them better and more successful at their job. If you can provide knowledge, expertise and service in a way that surrounds your technology to add value for your customers and their business, then you’ll likely be able to solve their problem in a way that others can’t, or won’t. Which takes me to my last point.

3. Show proof!

Creating belief in your brand is 100 percent predicated on your ability to prove that you can do what you say you will do. And as any company grows — from concept to commercialization and on to growth and expansion — the proof will evolve and grow. At the very earliest stages — when depending on friends and family or angel investors — it’s typically about the people: the founders and the team. The proof is based on their background, expertise and knowledge as they work to create belief in their vision and concept. As the business grows, it becomes possible to demonstrate real technologies and products, tell real success stories, and show real ROI.

The proof will change and grow, but the positioning shouldn’t change too much. It can get tweaked and modified, but unless something has happened with your business where you are solving a different problem than when you started — possibly due to an acquisition or entering a new market — it shouldn’t change dramatically. Staying focused and consistent is the only way to build sustainable belief in your brand.

Cleantech Forum San Francisco was truly a remarkable and inspiring conference. My reflections on the conference and how we can help them solve problems are also posted on the Symmetri website.

If you’re a cleantech company — from agriculture to construction, healthy buildings, smart roadways, electric vehicles and beyond — who believes marketing can help drive growth, please reach out to Symmetri. We’re ready to help you create a brand that will help drive growth for your business.