Telling the Renewable Energy Story in Germany and Abroad

Last week I posted about the growth of Germany’s homegrown renewable energy industry. Since then I’ve been working more closely with the energy unit in Waggener Edstrom’s Munich office and have come away with a deeper understanding of PR’s opportunity in renewable energy.

The business case for renewable energy is pretty clear. The global population is growing. As major economies become increasingly developed, their populations will expect first-world living conditions, which includes access to consistent and affordable energy. Most conventional fuel sources—coal, natural gas and oil—are globally traded commodities that are subject to significant, and often unpredictable, price swings that have a sizable impact on the cost of energy.

Both conventional and renewable energy sources have significant upfront capital costs to build a power plant. What sets renewables apart is that they eliminate the cost of a fuel source. As technology continues to improve, the cost of renewable energy is plummeting and in a number of markets is beginning to reach grid parity, where it costs the same or less as conventional energy. In Germany alone, the country’s solar power covered 10 to 50 percent of peak-load power every day during the past 6 months.

WE Munich has been quite successful over the past few years in cultivating a base of renewable energy clients, including Canadian Solar, Kirchner Solar Group and Green City Energy. These clients range from manufacturers to installers, demonstrating the opportunity for telling the renewable energy story across the value chain. At the same time, the office here has been investing in its people to build expertise in the renewables market. WE Munich’s Mareike Lenzen, who has graciously hosted me in the office during my visit here, is a guest lecturer on energy policy in Africa at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-University.

The team’s work with renewable energy clients is getting attention too. Last year the Munich office’s energy team won the 2011 SABRE Award for best EMEA renewable energy campaign as a result of facilitating a strategic partnership between two clients—Green City Energy and RAU. Green City Energy is a renewable energy service provider, while RAU installs acoustic fences that help limit noise pollution. The team in Munich proposed placing solar panels on top of a fence that RAU was developing for Nestle and provided counsel throughout the process, from communicating the benefits of a solar acoustic fence to advising on financial terms of the deal. The project, which otherwise would have been built without the solar installation, resulted in producing enough clean energy to supply 50 households for a year. The ensuing media coverage reached an audience of over 2.7 million people.

As my time here in Munich comes to an end, I’m looking forward to returning to Seattle with the knowledge I’ve gained here working alongside our energy team. They are clearly passionate about renewable energy and have developed some pretty impressive credentials working for clients here in Germany. To learn more about what’s inside the energy story, check out this video that the Munich team created in 2010.

When you look at the market potential, we’re still at the prologue of the renewable energy story. WE’s Global Exchange has been a great opportunity to learn more about that story and understand what to expect in the upcoming chapters.

This post was originally published at


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Hergestellt in Deutschland: Germany’s Homegrown Renewable Energy

When you take the train in to downtown Munich from the airport, one of the first things you notice is the solar panels dotting rooftops.

For an American who follows renewable energy issues, coming to Germany is like stepping into the future. In the U.S. total solar generation capacity is less than 0.1 percent. In Germany it is already 10 percent of the country’s base load—and 75 percent of that comes from solar panels on people’s homes and businesses. Those rooftop panels or ground-mounted solar units provide electricity directly to a home or business. And when there’s excess capacity, residents are able to sell electricity back into the electric grid at a fixed rate—often up to a 30 percent profit. How’s that for self-reliance and entrepreneurship?

The rapid growth of solar energy in Germany is largely the result of the country’s feed-in tariff. (It’s certainly not because of the number of sunny days; Germany gets roughly as much sun as Seattle and Portland.) A feed-in tariff is a government policy that encourages the growth of a new energy technology. Producers of electricity using certain technologies—like solar, wind and biomass—are guaranteed a certain price for electricity generated for 20 years following installation.

For the average German homeowner, that means they can install rooftop solar—at an average cost of 25,000 euros—and often pay it off in 10 years. The remaining 10 years on the feed-in tariff can be pure profit for the homeowner, netting an overall profit of up to 30 percent. Each year the feed-in tariff goes down by a scheduled amount until a point in the future when solar energy is expected to be cost competitive with electricity from the grid (often natural gas or nuclear). That’s already happened in southern Italy, where the cost of solar energy has become equal to energy from conventional sources.

The success of solar energy can also be attributed to Germans’ preference for products that are hergestellt in Deutschland, or made in Germany. The solar industry in Germany encompasses manufacturing, installation, maintenance, sales and marketing, creating jobs at all levels of the economy—with more than 380,000 jobs in the sector last year. Companies at all levels of the solar value chain—from photovoltaic panel manufacturers to installers—need help telling their story.

While the German industry has experienced some hiccups due to global competition, the solar industry as a whole is here to stay. Germany plans to meet 35 percent of its electricity consumption needs in 2020 with renewable energy. Thirty U.S. states, from Washington to Virginia, have passed legislation mandating that renewable energy account for 15 percent or more of consumption. It’s been exciting to learn more about the industry in a place where it’s been so successful and get a sense of the industry’s potential to grow in the U.S. and globally.

This post was originally published on Special thanks to WE Munich’s Mareike Lenzen for some of the data points included in this post.

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An American in Munich

I’m nearing the end of my second day in the Munich office as part of Global Exchange. Munich itself has been stunning—modern and historical at once. After subsisting on a diet of Bavarian sausage and beer for my first two days, I’ve made the transition to pasta and salad. And that’s good news because Munich is home to a very large Italian community—after all, it’s only 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Italy’s northern border—with a trattoria on nearly every corner. It’s also evident how much Munich is a compact city. I’ve heard it described more than once as like a village—a village that happens to be home to 1.3 million residents and the global headquarters of BMW, Siemens and Allianz.

And don’t forget to look out for bikes! Bicycle commuting in Munich is everywhere, accounting for 14% of all traffic. In the central city nearly every street has dedicated bike lanes set apart from auto traffic, often with the bike lane sharing half the sidewalk with pedestrians. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of bikes parked outside a U-Bahn station. In fact, most cyclists don’t bother wearing helmets given how prevalent biking is here.

This Monday also marked the beginning of the new Munich office with the combined forces of WE Munich and Patzer PR. I’m told that the former WE office here was in a converted apartment which, while it had lovely fin de siècle chandeliers, never quite felt like a full office. WE München has now arrived. The new office is beautiful—a loft-like space with glass walls everywhere. It’s in a neighborhood full of other marketing agencies. I knew I was in the right place on my first day when I walked into the courtyard where the office is located and saw a red Mini Cooper suspended upside down from a skybridge.

The team here in Munich has been incredibly gracious toward me, especially with seamlessly switching to perfectly fluent English whenever I’m around. (In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken with have three or more languages.) We talked about how compact and tightly connected markets are in the Europe compared to the U.S.—the longest flight in Germany is 1 hour and a 2-hour flight gets you outside Europe. They in turn were struck by the distances between WE’s U.S. offices and how we operate differently from our presence here in Europe.

Over the next few days I’m going to continue sharing what I’m learning here. Look for a post soon on the renewable energy industry in Germany and the opportunity for communications. Until then, tschüss!

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Leaving on a Jet Plane for Global Exchange

Tomorrow I get on a plane and fly halfway around the world from Seattle to Munich. On Tuesday I walk into Waggener Edstrom’s brand new Munich office—the office doubled in size following our purchase of healthcare PR firm Patzer earlier this year—for a two-week visit as part of WE’s Global Exchange program. While there I’ll work alongside our account team focused on renewable energy and get an inside look at how communications professionals ply their trade in Germany.

The Global Exchange program started a little over five years ago as an opportunity to create stronger ties across our offices around the world. A small handful of people participated in the first year program—and this year it’s expanded to 18 of us in 10 offices, from Beijing to Johannesburg and from San Francisco to London. For an agency with Northwest roots and a global footprint, the opportunity to go on Global Exchange allows WE employees to better understand the work that WE does on an international scale.

Why Munich? When applying for the exchange, I selected Munich in large part because it’s an exciting time to be in Germany. Over the past 20 years Germany has instituted economic policies that have helped grow one of the largest solar energy industries in the world—in May solar energy accounted for 10% of Germany’s electricity consumption, a 40% increase over May of 2011. Some of WE’s key clients in our Munich office are leading solar energy companies. For someone whose communications work focuses on supporting environmental sustainability for clients like Microsoft, it’s a great opportunity to see first-hand how renewable energy is succeeding in the marketplace. After its strong economy largely weathered the global recession of the past four years, Germany is now in a position to play an important role in deciding the future of the euro zone, making it a fascinating place for an American like myself to learn about doing business globally.

Watch over the next two weeks for updates from me on the ground in Munich. I’ll be writing about what I’m learning from our colleagues in Munich and the broader business landscape in Germany. Look for my first dispatch from Munich early next week!

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The Economist Embraces CSR and Corporate Sustainability

The Schumpeter column in this week’s Economist is well worth reading for its take on the evolving nature of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Using an upcoming sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro (following the UN’s Rio +20 earlier in June) as a news hook, the article makes the claim that CSR has “a hard-earned reputation for flakiness,” known for “agreeable-sounding platitudes” and the prevalence of the conference circuit. That’s a criticism you might expect from our friends at the bastion for free enterprise and markets that is the Economist. But the article goes on to describe how CSR is evolving from managing corporate reputations (through greenwashing and the like) to embracing business fundamentals through the lens of social innovation, such as supply chain management and sustainable product design.

For Schumpeter, sustainability has emerged as the loudest buzzword in the CSR vernacular. The column cites some interesting statistics: A recent MIT Sloan Management Review survey found that last year 67% of managers believe that sustainability is a key to competitive success, up from 55% the year before. The business principles are clear: Business managers have realized that making the most of finite resources is good business both in the factory and at the consumer’s home. Unilever has created detergents that use less water when doing the laundry, for instance. Because many facets of sustainability can be measured—think of carbon emissions, water and waste—businesses can modify products, packaging and their supply chains to make measurable improvements.

The column’s conclusion sums up how the established business order is coming around to CSR and sustainability. I would probably do best to quote this in full:

In the days when CSR was just about public relations, it was probably bad for the reputation of business in general. Companies seemed to concede that profitmaking was a bad thing. Too often, they bowed to anti-business activists and made ‘amends’ through good works. Today’s iteration of CSR is less self-abasing and more constructive. It is encouraging businesses to become more frugal in their use of resources and more imaginative in the way they think about competitive advantage.

The article raises a number of great questions about how to approach CSR, namely whether an effort is essentially playing defense or integrating social responsibility into how one does business. Some of the companies cited in the article, like Nike, appear to have done that very well in recent years, especially in light of its shortcomings in the 90s around the labor in its factories. Another good reminder that sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

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What’s in a Headline?

Here’s some fun year-end reading . The Seattle Times released its list of the top most-read stories on its website last Thursday—and notably it’s far from a list of the top stories of the year in terms of what any sane person would consider news value (locally that would probably be something like the Amanda Knox acquittal or the Seahawks making the playoffs as a 7-9 team). Instead, it’s a case study in what makes a great headline. After all, in the world of online news, the almighty click is king—if you can’t get your attention’s audience from the get-go, you won’t get a chance to tell your story.

Here’s the top 10 list (again, these are most read—or if you prefer, most clicked on—stories):

  1. Woman dies in fall at high school reunion at a Shelton casino (July 31, 2011)
  2. Seattle murder conviction tossed out over ‘racist’ comments (June 9, 2011)
  3. Sign him up! Fan catches bat, saves beer (March 6, 2011)
  4. OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail (July 13, 2011)
  5. 40 kittens later, ‘Harry Potter’ movie franchise calls it a wrap (July 9, 2011)
  6. Educating Gabriel, 13, an off-the-charts prodigy (Oct. 8, 2011)
  7. Wis. Democrats say AWOL lawmakers will return (March 9, 2011)
  8. 12 wounded as gunfire erupts at Kent car show (July 23, 2011)
  9. 96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder (June 8, 2011)
  10. Together 74 years, Kirkland couple die less than a day apart (Aug. 7, 2011)

What stands out in these headlines to you? To me, it can be narrowed down to a few things:

  • What’s more detailed than 40 kittens?: While I’m married to a Harry Potter fanatic (and kindergarten teacher), I have very limited interest in the Harry Potter movies. But I recall clicking on this article when it ran back in July—it had me at “40 kittens later.” With an image like that I had to learn more.
  • Tell me a story: Very few things can provoke the imagination like “96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder.” This headline immediately had me envisioning the story like it was a movie trailer. Talk about hooking your audience from the get-go. Same thing with the couple from Kirkland.
  • Action and the unexpected: Headline #3—about a baseball fan who caught a bat flying into the stands while grasping a beer in his other hand—is probably my favorite, and not only because I have horrible eye-hand coordination (you don’t want to sit next to me in foul ball territory). The “sign him up!” introduces an element of a voice into the story, giving you a conclusion before you read more, and the unexpected detail of saving a beer adds a new layer too. It’s like a good joke with one punchline after another.Image
  • Provoke a response: Some of these headlines were clearly designed to upset a reader before clicking through. Case in point: “OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail.” Entirely upsetting, and yet you have to know more. Click.
  • Keep it local: The Times’ accompanying blog post notes that readership of individual articles can spike when a story appears on Google News or gets national attention, but I was struck by how local these stories are. With the exception of the baseball story (which happened at spring training in Florida) and the Harry Potter wrap-up, these stories were very local in nature. Two takeaways: 1) We have access to all the world’s news, but what’s happening in our backyard really turns us on. 2) There’s an “oh, them” element here. Dying in a fall at your high school reunion? Only in Shelton. Viewing child porn in jail? I knew it smelled bad in Tacoma, but that too? Gross.
  • It helps when your audience is, well, bored: I was struck that 7 of these 10 stories hit in summer (June-August). Aren’t people supposed to be on vacation and not online then? My best guess is that in many desk jobs things are often slower in the summer and people are looking to procrastinate. Minor detail—but always worth thinking about what it takes for your audience to engage with you and what variables are at play.

Overall, it’s a good reminder that storytelling is more art than science, and when it’s done right, there’s rarely a better model for good storytelling than looking at headlines. Which is why people love America’s finest news source The Onion so much.

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Cigarette Warning Labels: Will They Work?

As you may have seen in this week’s news, the federal government unveiled new warning labels for cigarette packaging, set to debut early next year, that depict gruesome imagery evoking the health impacts of smoking, from a person blowing smoke through a neck tracheotomy to damaged lungs. The images are fairly gross,  but the campaign got me thinking about whether a campaign like this will be successful or whether it will backfire.

The situation is this: After years of decline, the smoking rate has finally leveled off. The text-based warning labels on cigarette packaging, unchanged since 1985, have increasingly become background noise. Smokers are seemingly aware of the health risks associated with smoking but continue to light up. It turns out that roughly 30 countries use graphic imagery to discourage tobacco usage, so there is a wealth of data demonstrating that it has worked in those countries. In Thailand, the percentage of people who thought about the health risks of smoking went from 35 percent to 55 percent. When Canada became the first country in the world to adopt image-based labels 11 years ago, a full 85 percent of survey respondents reported using tobacco packages as a source of health information.

So the data shows it should work. But will it? It seems to me that there are three important issues that will determine whether this campaign will achieve its desired results—the messenger, the audience and the message.

The Messenger

Do consumers believe that the messenger—the federal government—has the credibility to change their behavior? A blog post from economist Robin Hanson put it this way: “We decide it’s not a good idea to let the government ban this product, or to require a doctor’s prescription to consume, then that means that everyone should be allowed to consume it if they choose.” But we can probably agree as well that it’s not a good idea to let the government be decider-in-chief about which products are “cool,” even though that’s exactly what this campaign tries to do. To get consumers to take a desired action, the message has to be believable coming from the messenger. If the messenger can’t do this without fear of striking the wrong cultural chord, it’s possible that they should take a different approach entirely.


The Audience

It seems that the missing link in this campaign is pinpointing who the target audience is. Is it aimed at preventing new smokers (i.e., teenagers and young adults) from picking up the habit or at encouraging existing smokers to quit? It reminds me of a campaign from the 1980s aimed at reducing roadside littering in Texas. An early PSA campaign that focused on littering as a moral issue and “doing the right thing” was a dismal failure. But a second campaign focused on the core audience, which was tough guy males, ages 18 to 35, who didn’t think twice of throwing trash out the window. They unveiled a campaign with the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” (now celebrating 25 years) and enlisted celebrity spokespeople such as Texas Rangers baseball players and musician Stevie Ray Vaughan. Roadside littering decreased by 72% over the next four years. To get a change in behavior, you have to know whose behavior you’re trying to change and where their pressure points are. Finding the right messenger to reach that audience is nice too.

The Message

And that leads us to the message itself. Does visually depicting smoking as a death wish discourage smoking? Or are these images so beyond the pale that they have the opposite effect by tapping into the bravado (think Marlboro Man) associated with smoking in early advertising campaigns? For young males, a key target audience for cigarette companies, depictions of smoking as dangerous, gruesome and unhealthy may add to cigarettes’ appeal simply due to an increased appetite for risk-taking. Some of the images on these labels evoke the t-shirts for the brand of heavy metal bands that I grew up with—and those shirts are typically worn as a badge of honor among teens and young adult males.

Which leads me to a final thought. At least one of the image-based ads from Canada took a different approach that would resonate with young males—humor and fear of sexual impotence. Now ask yourself a question—which campaign is more effective?

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