Unless you’ve been living and working in a cave for the last few months (not a great place to sell solar, BTW), you’ve heard that Elon Musk launched a $3,500 battery pack to store power from residential solar, the Tesla Powerwall.
You might think it’s a lot of hype — lots of other companies are working on advanced home battery packs, after all — but there’s a good reason Elon’s launch got more attention than, say, your company’s last launch did.
The obvious reason is Elon himself, America’s latest darling celebrity CEO. But even if your CEO is not a celeb, your solar company can get some of Elon’s PR mojo. But first you have to know what not to do.
When your CEO is not Elon
Unless you work for SolarCity, Elon is not on your management team. And as charismatic as your own chairman or CEO might be, it’s safe to assume that he or she is no Elon. No offense. But that level of celebrity recognition takes time, luck and charisma to earn — and plenty of mistakes along the way. Just ask Richard Branson.
This means that some of the PR strategies that worked for Elon, such as teasing the press in advance by leaking out hints of the Powerwall weeks before its launch, may not work for your solar launch. If your company’s profile isn’t as high as Elon’s, then trying to generate interest with teasers will just get your launch ignored at best.
At worst, if you’re not Elon, the press and industry analysts will pan your efforts to be coy as pretentious and silly.
Create a gripping story the Elon way
A better way to sprinkle some of Elon’s fairy dust on your solar product launch is to follow Elon’s style of storytelling. And for that, you don’t need a celebrity CEO. You just need to create narrative tension in your new product’s story.
A regional editor for the Wall Street Journal in Southern California once told me that corporate news releases with “stories of excellent people succeeding excellently” go straight into a reporter’s trash. That’s because what the news media, and the general public, want in a story is narrative tension. And tension comes straight from the simple storytelling formulas that make fairy tales, romance novels and even Star Wars so gripping:
- Good guy vs bad guy
- Good guy vs big challenge
- Flawed good guy who fails but picks himself up, dusts himself off and starts all over again
Too many solar company launches don’t create enough tension in their story. That is, they don’t demonstrate well enough how their product fills a real need for their customers, or, even better, for society at large.
Focusing on the positive may be more comfortable for solar marketers than talking about problems or controversies. But you need enough of the negative at the beginning of your story to make people care about your new product.
Like tech companies, many solar companies call their products “solutions.” But the problem is, they too often breeze over the problem. And a solution without a problem is just business hype.
Elon the storyteller
Just look at the video of Elon on stage at the Powerwall launch to see how he creates tension in his story, using plain English and a casual, friendly tone that nonetheless presents deadly serious problems and offers a new product as a solution that’s so inspiring exactly because it’s so practical.
Even though Elon could have assumed that his audience already knew about the need for a cheap and effective home battery, he doesn’t just skip over the problems that the Powerwall would solve. But nor does he waste a lot of time on stuff that people already know. Instead, Elon hits just the right note when he talks about the two biggest problems the new battery pack would help solve by making solar power more valuable.
First, he starts with perhaps the biggest problem in human history, climate change. In the storytelling world, the challenge doesn’t get bigger than this. And of course in that storyline, the hero is going to save the world, right?
What I’m going to talk about tonight is about a fundamental transformation about how the world works. About how energy is delivered across the Earth. This is how it is today. It’s pretty bad [shows slide of smokestacks] It sucks! Exactly. I just want to be clear, because sometimes people are confused about…This is real.
After going over projected carbon emissions from fossil fuel power generation in the coming decades and then showing how the current power grid is laid out in hubs and spokes, Elon then goes into solar power as a solution and the “missing piece.”
That missing piece is not adequate space for solar panels. Elon explains that you’d only need to install solar PV on a small portion of the landmass of the U.S. to replace all fossil power generation today. And most of that PV could be on rooftops, so you wouldn’t have to displace other land uses. Instead, the missing piece, as solar companies already know, is storage. And here’s where Elon creates his next piece of strong narrative tension.
“The issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They’re really horrible. They look like that,” he explains as he shows a slide of a bank of conventional batteries:
They’re expensive. They’re unreliable. They’re sort of stinky. Ugly. Bad in every way. Very expensive. you have to get some sort of…you need to combine multiple systems. There’s not one integrated place you can do and buy a battery that just works, which is what people really want to buy…So that’s the missing piece. That’s the thing that’s needed to have a proper transition to a sustainable energy world. Such missing piece is what we’re going to show you tonight.
Then, cue the music, and unveil the Powerwall. Sleek and elegant, styled more like a new product from Apple than like your car’s acid battery, the Powerwall’s look would speak for itself.
Yet, it might not be much more than a nicely designed plastic box if Elon hadn’t set up the contrast with the smelly, ugly and expensive batteries which the Powerwall is meant to replace.
Forget celebrity hype and just tell a powerful story
The lesson here for a solar product launch?
In the end, even after the weeks of PR games, when it came time to launch the Powerwall, even Elon himself didn’t rely on celebrity theatrics. Instead, he gave a good solid presentation built on great storytelling to build tension for his new product. He hit just the right balance between inspiration and modesty, smarts and slang, problem and solution — and, ultimately, fear and hope.
Making that hope practical, while helping you connect with the fear that creates the need in the first place will build tension that can help any solar product launch more effectively.
So, even as your solar marketing hammers on the message of zero-money down for customers, help the media, analysts and other audiences to see the bigger need for any new solar product. Yes, it’s fighting climate change. Yes, it’s a more resilient power grid. And yes, it’s about something bigger than just saving a few bucks a month on your electric bill.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group