Green branding – pure green, or dirty green?

25 November 2020
Green branding – pure green, or dirty green?

Before the pandemic, corporate climate announcements were coming thick and fast, with pretty much everybody jumping on the sustainability band wagon. Now, with vaccines lighting the end of the tunnel, we can expect a return to green rhetoric from legacy brands and new narratives from disruptive green start-ups.

What is different now is that lockdown has proved the planet can heal and a growing number of consumers all over the world seem to agree that this is a good thing. Even hard-headed investors are modifying their investment criteria, buying green bonds and not investing in the most polluting companies.

With Governments, business and consumers aligning around the urgent need to combat climate change, a plethora of green brands are being founded on pure green principles. But how do you name and brand a pure green company and differentiate it from one that’s dirty green?

NAMING A PURE GREEN BRAND

New ‘pure green’ brands should be able to command a price premium over ‘dirty green’ and ‘plain dirty’ legacy brands. Once consumers shape pure green preferences, every brand will be forced to rethink their purpose and value propositions. Whole industries, like fashion, are already reimagining their supply chains to make themselves more sustainable, carbon neutral and ethical. 

During carbon transition, today’s brands will need to transform, pivot or reinvent themselves. Today, too many brands’ sustainability efforts are focused on managing risk and boosting reputation, rather than growing sales through true green appeal. ‘Greenwashing’ is an undesirable tag for any brand and won’t be enough to convince activists who will step up their pursuit of polluters and those that pay lip service to pure green values. 

We’ve taken a look at three related sectors. Two where green credentials shouldn’t be in doubt, and another where they definitely are.

WHAT’S IN A PURE GREEN BRAND NAME?

The transformative shift towards renewable energy, solar, wind, hydrogen and energy storage systems, is fast gathering momentum.

This initial phase has seen a land grab for descriptive compound names, many using using generic prefixes: solar, eco, power, energy, technology, green, new, next. These obvious components have already been used to near exhaustion by the early movers: SunPower, SolarEdge, NextEra, First Solar, Ecotricity, China Power New Energy, Enel Green Power, Good Energy, Open Energi and many more. 

The lexicon in this crowded market has had to widened to include other word combinations that communicate a techy or quirky edge in an attempt to sound next-gen or cool. Limejump (now Shell-owned), Origami, Kiwi Power, Invinity Energy and BritishVolt are all young and emerging UK renewable energy companies. 

Beyond Limits, BP’s recent AI acquisition is an indication that more expressive brand names have potential. Zenobe is a UK energy storage start-up, with an intriguing three syllable name (and an irritating accent on the ‘e’).

Overall this sector doesn’t feel like the contenders have invested much time or effort in creating brand names that will make it to the world stage.

‘OIL’ AND ‘GAS’ ARE BOTH DIRTY WORDS

The plunging share prices of the oil majors provide clear proof that the world is ready for a carbon neutral future.

Reflecting this seismic change is the increasing number of rebrands amongst the oil majors, with everyone removing ‘oil’ and ‘gas’ from their brand names. Gaz de France (GDF Suez) has become Engie; Mobil Oil Nigeria is now 11 PLC; Penn West Petroleum became Obsidian Energy and Statoil has rebranded as Equinor. There have been some howlers in the process, with Danish Oil and Natural Gas becoming Dong and then not long after rebranding again to Ørsted, given that ‘dong’ means ‘to punch’ in Australia, and something more vulgar elsewhere…

Oil majors have to transition from fossil fuels whilst protecting shareholder value and fending off climate change activists. The strategy - led by BP, Shell and Total - is to acquire renewable energy start-ups, including AutoGrid, Sonnen, Saft and dozens of other potential disruptors. Shell has formed its New Energies business to build an integrated lower carbon power business. BP is endorsing its acquisitions, such as Lighthouse, with a BP suffix. The infamous ‘Beyond Petroleum’ proposition introduced 20 years ago, though visionary at the time, remains a cautionary example in brand overpromising. 

The question is, today, whether the oil majors can transform fast enough to change perceptions about their brands and address the shifts in public sentiment, or will green tech pureplays disrupt the energy marketplace.

GREEN CONSUMER BRANDS

Looking at electric vehicle brands, the obvious standout is Tesla. It has all the ingredients required for success: a visionary founder with a futuristic vision; a bold market disruption strategy; a ground-breaking product that consumers with pay a premium for; and a cool brand with an increasing number of fervent followers. 

Given Tesla’s success, there are imitators. One is Nikola, a US manufacturer of hydrogen powered trucks, which took the electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla’s first name. Nikola’s ambition was startling, but the reality deceitful. As a consequence of a prototype seemingly filmed in motion, but in reality just rolling down a slope, the share price collapsed and the founder and CEO resigned. An expensive reminder that brand value can vapourise if reality doesn’t live up to the promise.

But as Nikola fades away, Faraday Future is another California-based EV brand named after a electro-innovator and Nio is a highly-rated Chinese EV competitor. Nio's share price has grown rapidly, with JP Morgan thinking it could take 30% of the world’s premium EV market. It even has a short, memorable name that seems to work anywhere in the world. Nio sounds like the future, and it may well be.

BRANDS FOR THE GREEN INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

What do we learn from this brief look at green, energy-related brand names? Well, no-one except Tesla (and possibly Nio) has cracked branding for the Green Industrial Revolution. Too many contender’s names are either generic, copycat, tortured compounds or just plain arbitrary words. 

Start-up names, decided by the founders over a 7:00 am Starbucks, have stuck and, as a result, are struggling to communicate brand authority. Quite probably, several will also be having problems gaining international trade mark protection. If they are acquired, these names are likely to be subsumed into more compelling brands. The brand equity could be so much greater if they invested more effort in their naming and branding – which will matter when the industry consolidates. A compelling brand is a very valuable valuation asset.

WHAT’S THE SECRET OF BRAND NAMING?

There’s no great secret for naming green brands, just logical principles that apply to winning brands regardless of size or market. First of all, the brand purpose, positioning and value proposition have to be defined and well-articulated. Without those, a business will not find a standout name that truly expresses its points of difference.

Secondly, a brand name must pass a set of stringent evaluation criteria. Is the brand name memorable, distinctive, pronounceable, devoid of double-meanings; and can it be protected around the world with trade marks, domain names and social media handles?

We expect brand naming to become increasingly important in Boris & Biden’s Green Industrial Revolution. Innovation and M&A will create global sustainable energy brands to take on the fossil fuel giants, new green brands will appear across other sectors and green disruption will cause havoc for ostrich brands.

While, today, there’s only one Elon Musk, there are plenty of opportunity for clean green brands with compelling names to address the need to heal the planet.

Do contact us if you need any help with brand naming or bringing your brand to life across all media.
 

Peter Matthews
Nucleus founder and CEO
pmatthews@nucleus.co.uk