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Technology Marketing Lessons, Learned in the First Grade

Most of us learned at a very early age that it’s not a good idea to kick sand in the face of the biggest kid in school. Unless you enjoyed getting pounded into the ground like a tomato stake, the best strategy on the playground was to avoid physical confrontation with those who are twice your size.

This simple lesson in life also applies to the practice of marketing.

The number one rule of marketing is never attack an entrenched competitor in his or her area of greatest strength with an emerging technology. (especially not with an emerging technology like solar)

Yet that is exactly what many people in the solar industry actually do by promoting solar as a “reliable” source of electric power.

Every week I hear a solar vendor or clean energy lobbyist or solar advocacy group proclaim that the solar industry needs to emphasize “reliability.” Well like it or not, reliability is a key strength of solar’s biggest competitor…the electric utility industry. So claiming reliability as an advantage of solar is like challenging Lance Armstrong to a race immediately after learning to ride a bicycle.

Not only does solar provide something that people already have (electricity), but their current supplier (the electric utility industry) has created an enduring public perception of being the most reliable source of electric power. The utility industry spent more than 70 years building their reputation and all electric utilities are perceived as having specific advantages — reliability, unlimited capacity, plug-in ready, and constant availability.

Utilities are the 900-pound gorilla of the electric supply “playground” and power from the grid is perceived by the public as the safest, most reliable choice.

Those of us in the solar industry know that PV is in fact very reliable. But utilities have already captured the reliability square on the game board. They own that part of the playground. And it’s a waste of time and money trying to compete against a 70-year-old public perception that utility power is the most reliable. There are many other ways in which to successfully compete against electric utilities.

One more thing. Next time you are playing basketball at the local gymnasium, don’t challenge LeBron James to a game of one-on-one. The results won’t be pretty.

Thomas Edison was a Technology Marketing Genius

Most of us think of Thomas Edison as an inventor.  But if you look closely, you’ll see Thomas Edison had an expert understanding of technology adoption and marketing strategy.

Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879. And in 1882 Edison dramatically accelerated the adoption of electric power and light to the early majority using specific techniques designed to humanize his new invention.

Edison’s strategy for accelerating the adoption of electric light was based on minimizing disruption to people’s lives.  Since gas lamps were the dominant method of indoor lighting, Edison designed his electric lights to look and operate almost identically.  His initial electric lights provided 13 watts of light, almost the same as the 12-watt gas lamps he wanted to replace.  The new electric lamps looked almost exactly like those same gas lamps.

Recognizing that many commercial and residential landowners in New York had invested considerable capital in gas infrastructure to light their buildings, Edison chose to run his first electrical wires through existing gas lines, fitting directly into the system people already understood for the delivery of light.

Edison’s technology was new, but the form and function were decades old. In fact, Edison’s strategy of adapting his technology to systems people were familiar with, and minimizing disruption of the customer’s habits, led to accelerated acceptance and adoption.

Edison’s other ingenious marketing strategy was in selecting the location of his first customers — financial institutions in lower Manhattan.  Seeing the windows of the financial district aglow by night demonstrated electric lighting technology to the metro population living across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Because the financial community was seen as a credible source of innovative new products, Edison helped meet the reference requirements of the early majority, who then shared the idea with their local communities. This endorsement of electric power and light, as demonstrated by a credible (and influential) reference in a visible location, had tremendous influence on the rest of the country.

Technology organizations of all types can learn from Edison’s techniques. The more a supplier works to reduce disruption, lower perceived risk, and provide credible references, the faster adoption will occur.

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