Buried deep in Apple's big iPhone 6 announcement was a small checklist that ticked off its environmental credentials. I cannot overstate how unimportant this was to the full announcement, and the fact that it was even on stage is surprising.
You won't find the checklist in any of the coverage, which focuses entirely on the features and benefits of the new Apple products. There is plenty written about the new Pay feature as well as the design of the Apple Watch, but want to know how green the product is? I found only one story on that and it's mostly a critique of people critiquing Apple's environmental credentials on Twitter.
The checklist itself can be found on the iPhone 6 specs page. What, you've haven't read the specs on the iPhone 6? Oh, well go do that, then scroll all the way to the bottom and you'll find a small checklist.
It's a decent list, but look at how it's presented. The important elements are in darker text so your eye finds them fast, the rest are really secondary. You know it's environmental because it has that cool Apple logo that they roll out once a year.
My intention is not to bash Apple. The company is just reading the market and maybe satisfying that segment that wants to check the "green" box. They know that consumers have a passing interest in the environment and the list is enough for them to say "OK, Apple's got this" and then move on to the cool stuff such as how big and fast it is. When can you take my money?
For companies in the clean tech and clean energy space, this means something much more.
When branding a sustainability, clean-energy or clean-tech company, it's important to keep the true buyer in mind. If you are marketing to a check-box item, then you're not core to the business, making your sales position weak.
Worse, your value proposition won't enable you to charge a fair price, or even a premium, for your products, since "nice to haves" are cheaper than those products that speak to core business needs.
Here are three lessons from Apple's announcement:
1. Separate the mission from the message. Tesla makes technologically-advanced cars. Sure, the team wants to disrupt the auto industry and even have an environmental bent by taking on the internal combustion engine. But at its heart it makes cars that are as good or better than anything that Mercedes releases. That's what sells, it's what people want, it's what Tesla makes. No one buys a Tesla just because it's electric.
Yes, you may have a mission of saving the environment, you may even have done the math and realized that if a large portion of the market uses your product, it can reduce water usage, power usage or carbon emissions by massive amounts. But, before any of that happens, the buyers must make a business decision to buy and that decision is based on factors that simply don't include "being green."
2. Focus on the real competition. You may feel like the competition is in the environmental industry, but it isn't. Apple may be committed to putting a glass on its iPhone (and Apple Watch) that uses no arsenic, but first and foremost the glass must work for the phone.
If it's weak, cracks and scratches easily, or doesn't have the right feel, then it wouldn't be on the iPhone. The company may be running entire factories and data centers by solar power, but if that power drives up the cost of doing business or can't support the manufacturing infrastructure, then Apple will just put itself back on the grid.
The plant needs power. How it gets that power is secondary.
Your solution needs to not only be sustainable and provide a positive environmental impact, but also do the job as well, if not better, than what it's replacing.
3. Listen to your sales people. Sales folks are on the front line and constantly getting feedback from customers. They know what works, the competition and the true concerns of their prospects. Listen to them and get their feedback on the messaging. They will know what motivates customers and therefore what should be built into your marketing messages.
Just like in other industries, any advances are only as good as the benefit they bring. And for clean tech and sustainability companies, that benefit must go beyond the environmental impact. After all, no one will buy the iPhone 6 because of its environmental impact.
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