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Guest column for enerG magazine

Branding delivers an advantage in a crowded alternative energy sector

By Carmen Swartz

Companies with well-defined brands enjoy increased market share, preferred status with customers,
increased valuations, reduced turnover and a well-defined culture, aligning employees around a common purpose. Every business has an energy source to develop, a product to sell, a service to offer, or a message to deliver. But only those companies that stand out in logical and emotional dimensions enjoy a strategic advantage over the competition.

In increasingly noisy marketplaces-like the alternative energy industry-aspects like quality, service and price are just a ticket to the game. To be a preferred brand, a company must hold a position of trust and confidence in its customers' minds. This trust and confidence is earned when a company fulfills its brand promises to customers.

Brand is the identifying factor imprinted on the minds of a target audience, the psychological interaction that happens at the mere mention of a name. This, in turn, lends invaluable weight and meaning to every message, every visual cue, every point of contact made between a business and its customers. From start to finish, every single point of contact with the organization must deliver on its promise, including reception, service, website, employees, messaging, quality, trade show presence and more.

To be the partner of choice, employer of choice or the vendor of choice, the quality of a company's communications must match the quality of its products or services or the audience will not believe the messages.

Many companies have been successful by building personal relationships in which trust is the foundation. Trust is the foundation of all successful brands. As the company grows and changes, and the company builds operations, communications efforts must go to the same level. Not doing so will make it difficult for stakeholders to know the real company. In other words, great brand communications will make interactions much more efficient. This is especially important internally. As the business grows, it is important that new employees have the opportunity to know and live the brand.

Internal communications-ensuring that the entire organization is aligned-are just as important as external communications. Building a company around a powerful brand requires a champion. This is one of the key roles that a CEO plays. The CEO and his leadership team must communicate internally and externally what the brand stands for.

This becomes even more critical in fast growing companies, such as wind or solar power-related companies. It is important that the company have communication systems and tools in place to ensure the vision and culture of the brand remain intact as the company grows. The entire organization, from the lowest ranks to the executive levels, must embrace and execute on the brand.

The alternative energy industry has experienced significant growth and opportunity. New companies join the industry daily-there is capital to raise, merger and acquisition activity and people to hire. This "chaos" creates many challenges. One challenge is to identify and reach the desired audiences, which can include existing and desired customers, current and potential employees, investors, government, the community and other business partners or stakeholders. A well-defined brand will improve a solar or wind power company's ability to cut through the clutter to reach the identified audiences.

Another challenge is to identify messages that will resonate with the various audiences. A well-defined brand will have identified, prioritized and clearly-defined messages to be communicated to each audience.

What's the best way for a company to distinguish itself in the alternative energy industry? This is different for every business and every situation. Rather than search for a silver bullet, the answer is to define the company's brand.

When a company defines its brand, it becomes clear what the organization stands for, why customers will desire to do business with the organization, and most importantly, how to communicate the company's core messages.

Brand definition is especially important when a company experiences a merger or acquisition, a period of significant growth, a strategy or positioning change, a name change, increased competition or decreased barriers to entry-all of which occur frequently in the alternative energy industry.

Upon completion of brand definition, the company will understand its audiences and how to connect with them. It will have a guiding strategy with which to align the business and it will be clear how to communicate the organization's visual, verbal and auditory identity. Leadership will have a communications plan that will delineate exactly how to reach the audiences. It is in defining the brand and communicating it effectively that a company is able to distinguish itself in a noisy and competitive marketplace.

We'll look at further ways alternative energy companies can benefit from effective brand communications in the next Guest Column of enerG.

Carmen Swartz is a principal and brand strategist at ELEMENTS, a renewable energy brand communications firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

September/October 2008