Energy Biz Storytelling at SXSW Eco

Energy Biz Storytelling at SXSW Eco

The classic marketing approach of one-way communication feeding the sales funnel is no longer relevant to advanced energy and sustainability professionals.

That’s what I inferred from my two days at SXSW Eco, a confab of energy, design and sustainability stakeholders that combines real business with idealism and a big dose of edgy cool. Attendees run the gamut from students to CEOs, but they share a forward-thinking sensibility about communications marketing.

Instead of flooding the zone with press releases and marketing collateral, these brand professionals are  talking about authentic engagement and storytelling.

I came across two brands at the event experimenting with energy and environmental storylines that engage audiences to take action. The Sierra Club and the new blog TakePart both craft stories – the first advocacy-oriented, the second journalistic – to spur audience action. Like many brands at SXSW, both are essentially turning their brands over to their “customers” to use in their own personal way. Our Brandshare research corroborates this approach: brands thrive when they cede control of the brand and invite stakeholder participation – for content, new products, sustainability initiatives, you name it. Ninety percent of consumers want open, easy-to-engage brands. The Sierra Club knows, however, that fostering brand engagement requires on- and offline text and visual content running the gamut from funny to touching and galvanizing to surprising. All of it crafted to be punchy, authentic and compelling which is the magic recipe for sharability.  

“Make it easy and meaningful, and let them play,” says Chris Thomas of the Sierra Club.

Or as conference speaker Carey Myers of the Rockefeller Foundation put it during an address to brand managers, “It’s not about you.”

Pecan Street Project, a tech-driven sustainable neighborhood in Austin, argues that consumers want energy industry engagement. A shock to some, since ratepayers only engage their utility for seven minutes a year. But with new energy choices like solar, smart home devices and demand response grid automation, early adopters – and increasingly their mainstream neighbors – want to “create their own energy systems” according to Bert Haskell of Pecan Street. But energy businesses must do something they never do – make it easy and even “fun” for consumers to tell each other stories about energy. Mike Tinskey, Ford’s head of EV business says  does this well.

Ex-BP exec Christine Bader talked about a fellow executive’s experience winning the CFO over to social responsibility commitments. How? By telling factual but vivid stories about the real human beings deep in the company’s supply chain. Personal tours of factories in China were organized for the CFO, bolstered by a steady flow of photos and compelling narratives. Good listening skills, of course, were part of why her stories worked. She knew her audience. She understood the priorities of growing and protecting the bottom line, and she knew that her stories would be more compelling if she balanced social responsibility with the concept of risk management. What CFO doesn’t pay attention to risk?

Make no mistake, this is difficult work. Energy is highly regulated and brand storytellers need to balance breathtaking vision with the realm of the possible. There is a lot of challenging engagement that must take place when you open the flood gates, from power outages to fires.

Perhaps most complicating, energy stakeholders are fragmented. Investors and regulators want vastly different things than the village in India adopting a microgrid. In the village, brand engagement and storytelling is not going to happen during a conference call, a Congressional hearing, or online. It’s going to happen offline and using tools like Crowdring which has uncovered an ingenious way to engage stakeholders on basic mobile phones with no usage fee to the user. These diverse players require highly customized engagement.

All told, my trip to Austin was exhilarating. The transformation in energy stakeholder engagement up and down the value chain, from exploration and production to the homeowner, makes this the best time in history to be an energy and sustainability storyteller.