Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wind, Branding, and The Year of Steelcase Furniture

I don't know how I missed this last Tuesday when it hit newsstands, but word from The New York Times is that corporations can now buy naming rights for wind farms.

Hunter S. Thompson's
reaction, no doubt, would be to get naked, check to make sure the shotgun was loaded, drag a recliner out onto the porch, pour a tall glass of something strong, and smile at the colors of the dawning apocalypse. That'd be his reaction had he read Infinite Jest, anyway. For those of you that haven't read it, it's a monster of a David Foster Wallace novel. It deals with family, intensely competitive high school tennis, drug addiction and rehab, Quebecois separatism, and the psychology of entertainment. It takes place in a future North America in which numeric years have been abandoned in favor of The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment, The Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, etc. And it's a great book: Wallace's unsubtle ridicule of omnipresent marketing is only one of many beautiful satirical details.

But Hunter Thompson is dead. David Foster Wallace has found what might be an even more fitting medium in unrestrained journalism. And there's more than just giggles and eye rolling to take from the article: it's a good reminder of how sustainability marketing probably shouldn't be done.

I think it's fair to assume that Steelcase Furniture, the company mentioned in the article, bought the naming rights of the wind farm in order to more closely associate themselves with renewable energy. A company might buy stadium naming rights to subliminally bombard people with a brand, but I can't really imagine a wind farm achieving the heavily visited, newsworthy destination status of a ballpark.

It's great that Steelcase was willing to prepay for all of the renewable energy credits the wind farm will generate. It's great that they see that consumers care. And it's great that they are publicizing the fact that companies can make a commitment to renewable power right now.

Paying to associate a name with a wind farm strikes me, however, as the kind of old-style, non-innovative marketing move that both Umair Haque and Do The Right Thing founder Ryan Mickle would ridicule. It's not business-customer interaction. It's not openness. It's not marketing by listening. It's just pasting a name out there and hoping for positive brand association.

My impression is that Steelcase is already a pretty seriously leaderly company with regard to sustainability. If they chose to spend their marketing money NOT on naming rights but rather on educating us about what they're doing and asking us for thoughts and feedback, I think they would take their leaderliness to another level.


This is something of an aside, but another reason the article caught my attention is that the research I'm doing for Acorn Energy right now involves wind power and its relationship to energy infrastructure.

Acorn is all about efficiency, all about infrastructure, all about the grid. We invest on the non-sexy side of cleantech. We clean coal wastes, both solid and gas. We lay demand response software on the grid. We help cities escape electricity monopolies and purchase power portfolios with which its citizens are comfortable.

Wind is particularly interesting to us at the moment because it's becoming clearer and clearer that it "needs a dance partner," that wind's ability to get seriously economical and thus seriously scalable depends on our (the all-encompassing "our") ability to deliver well designed and well implemented infrastructure upgrades.

More to come on this topic for sure. Lots to learn. Totally fascinating.


Unknown said...

While naming it the "Wege Wind Farm provided by Steelcase" will not likely influence legions fans like naming a stadium. As a young employee (as slanted as my point of view may be), I'm proud to work for a company that is trying to open a few eyes on the issue of sustainability. At the very least, I hope the naming issue has raised a few eyebrows and encouraged other companies to invest in sustainable energy.

Danny Shapiro said...

I like the way you tied the Steelcase naming in with DFW's novel, Infinite Jest. But, to make a more substantive comment, I wouldn't really criticize Steelcase as much as you have. While I agree that there are better ways to raise awareness, especially in regard to what they are doing specifically, I think that they're taking a great forward step. It's as if by the simple act of attaching their name they are offering their support of renewable energy. Maybe they will do more in the future, but for now, I think we should be happy with this progress.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Matthew.

Don't worry about the slanted point of view. I think it's fantastic to hear that Steelcase's young employees are excited about what the company is doing.

It would be great if you guys were influencing other companies to invest in sustainable energy. And I think you can do just that. If you engage consumers and convince us all that you are the company we should be supporting, not only will your competitors respond and battle you for our favors, but other companies in other industries might see your success and imitate your good deeds.

As silly as I was in my post, I fully support Steelcase buying renewable energy and spending marketing dollars to promote it. I just hope you'll get a little more creative with the marketing.

Good luck, and thanks for the comment.


Jake de Grazia said...

You're right, Danny, as always. Steelcase is def taking a step. I'm just afraid that the marketing of that step is not creative enough to make it as impactful as it could be. The fact that Steelcase is paying UP FRONT for those as yet unproduced energy credits is important. Showing people the words Wege and Steelcase when they drive past the wind farm is not going to tell people why it's important. It's the '90s, brother, and we have the internets. Steelcase shouldn't be wasting their time with naming rights. They should be educating us.

Morgan Morgan said...

Hah! Good of you to channel DFW and _Infinite Jest_. It's hard to say what Wallace is ever saying about the environment, but it seems notable that both of his novels are set in the future and these futures include real geographic areas that have been radically altered in some way (the Great Concavity and the Great Ohio Desert in _The Broom of the System_). I don't think anyone will be coming out with a full-length ecocritical study of David Foster Wallace's fiction anytime soon, but he is one obvious example of an author who has (rightly) tied together a certain type of capitalism with a certain attitude toward the environment.

I know your reference was mostly in jest, but these things do have a way of connecting with each other (as I'm sure you realize).

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Michael.

When you have a draft of your "full-length ecocritical study of David Foster Wallace's fiction," please send it to me.

Great idea. I'm excited.



Danny Shapiro said...

While not ecocritical, there are these two studies of the work available:

Jake de Grazia said...

I hate complaining about Google, because they do give me lots of useful stuff for free, but it is true that Blogger's comment system leaves something to be desired.

Here are the links Danny posted:

Link 1

Link 2