Predicting a Green Future

February 14, 2008

This past week, the Industry Standard (IS), an icon of the late nineties Internet boom, relaunched its online property.  It did so, however, not as a publisher of industry content but rather as a consumer-driven platform to predict the future.

How does a platform such as this enable seemingly ordinary consumers to predict the future?  Quite simply, IS taps the “wisdom of crowds” or consensus view to determine the probability that an event will happen in the future.  Such an approach assumes that that “aggregation of information in groups…result[s] in decisions that…are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.”  Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, this approach has been demonstrated to be quite effective at making accurate predictions.

How does it work?  In the case of IS, a “market” is simulated whereby members place a bet on the probability that a future event will or will not occur.  They do so using “virtual currency” called “Standard Dollars”.  The probability of that event coming true is estimated based on “community consensus” calculated as the weighted average value of the bets placed for or against the prediction coming true.

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Interestingly, IS is only the latest online publisher to tap into this type of platform as a way to engage consumers.  Moreover, many of the existing platforms have a focus on predicting environmental trends including FT Predict, intrade, IdeaWorth, newsfutures, Popular Science Prediction Exchange, and ZiiTrend.   

                  Intrade’s Market Predicting EU Carbon Targets

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            Popular Science’s Market Predicting Green Events

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While many other sites exist to predict the future, it seems that only IS has tapped industry heavyweights as regular participants.  Their presence not only lends credibility to the site (and the predictions generated there), but arguably, also increases the accuracy of those predictions as well.  Quite simply, influentials possess domain knowledge that can shape the opinions of other site participants and the wagers that they make regarding the future.

As marketers experiment with new ways to attract and engage consumers, simulated markets should be in the mix.  Moreover, participation by domain experts may only enhance this consumer experience by providing credibility and enhancing the accuracy of the predictions.  But, you don’t have to take my word on this, however.  Just ask a crowd.


Corporations Foster Dialogue On the Environment

January 14, 2008

While many corporations leverage the Internet to distribute information about environmental initiatives, a few companies are going much further by facilitating two-way dialogue with stakeholders.   

Some companies may view such dialogue – via email, web forums, chat rooms and video – as risky, as it may open them up to public scrutiny.  Moreover, this sentiment may be especially true today for those brands that compete in carbon-intensive industries. 

Nonetheless, companies that are bold enough to enter into a dialogue tend to find that the rewards outweigh the risks.  Dialogue creates a direct channel to stakeholders that can be used to gather feedback, build credibility, and engender more loyalty by showing a more human side of the company. 

In other cases, companies are using dialogue to activate stakeholders – including customers, suppliers, employees, partners and shareholders – as change agents by soliciting new ideas. 

There are several examples of dialogue in the environmental space.  Here are just a few: 

British Telecom: It seems that on most corporate sites today, users are hard pressed to find a specific contact to forward their concerns to, let along an email address that does not deliver to a general mailbox. 

BT is different in this regard as it offers a detailed listing of contact names and email addresses to send questions specifically regarding corporate social responsibility, corporate environment programs and environmental supply chain management.

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Shell: Shell periodically conducts webcasts with senior-level executives on topics such as its annual Sustainability Report.  Interviews address questions solicited from stakeholders via email.   

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Dell: When Michael Dell declared that he wanted to build the “greenest PC on earth,” his company launched IdeaStorm as a platform to solicit “direct feedback from, [its] customers, suppliers and stakeholders” on how to do just that.  Moreover, IdeaStorm engages its stakeholders as change agents by encouraging them to promote their ideas and discuss them online with Dell and other users.

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General Motors: Chevrolet just announced a bold move in the green space by inviting the public to enter into a direct dialogue regarding GM flagship division and actions that it is taking to reduce its environmental impact. Through a New York Times advertisement, Beth Lowery, GM Vice President for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy asked the public to “talk” with Chevy about mutual concerns for the environment and what Chevy is doing to address them.   

Lowery asks the public to submit questions through a New York Times microsite that will be published in the Friday Op/Ed section.

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While many marketers perceive direct dialogue as too risky, many companies have fully engaged with stakeholders on many sensitive topics including the environment.  For many, a direct channel to the customer provides a way to generate feedback as well as to solicit new ideas.  Others focus on creating a more human way to connect with stakeholders. 

Regardless, dialogue is consistent with key attributes of leading green brands including accountability, transparency and credibility. More companies need to overcome their fear of potential negative feedback and join the dialogue on green issues. If done correctly, dialogue will more likely mitigate than engender consumer backlash in the future.  

(Full disclosure: GM is a Digitas client)


Investing in Green Innovation

January 2, 2008

As companies plan their green investment strategies for 2008 and beyond, they should take into account that caps on carbon emissions are all but inevitable in the future.  In fact, it is highly likely that caps will be in place in the US within the next few years.  The 187 nations that attended the UN climate conference last month in Bali (including the US) agreed to negotiate a successor agreement to Kyoto by the end of 2009.  Perhaps more importantly, Congress already has several climate bills under consideration.

How aggressive will carbon reduction targets be?  A recent Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme concluded that developed nations needed to reduce carbon emissions by greater than 80% from 1990 levels by mid-century in order to advert the worst impact of climate change.  Under any implementation scenario, carbon caps will likely be imposed over many years, if not decades, providing a window of opportunity for companies to adapt to and compete in this new world order.

In many ways, the imposition of carbon caps will reset the current competitive landscape.  Those businesses able or willing to adapt more quickly to this changing landscape will likely secure a competitive advantage by differentiating their brand or products, or by improving their cost basis. 

Despite the arguments for moving quickly, many companies will likely delay investment in green as long as they can, and do so for seemingly good reasons.  First, exact targets are uncertain.  Second, the timeline for implementation may take years, if not decades. 

Finally, the misuse of financial practices may preclude smart green investment.  A recent Harvard Business Review article, Christensen et. al., suggests that there are three ways that incorrect financial practices suppress investment in innovation.  Marketing Green believes that as green investments are largely investments in innovation, it is very likely that the misapplication of financial practices that impede innovation may also hinder prudent investments in green.  (Clayton Christensen, Stephen Kaufman and Willy Shih, “Innovation Killers: How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things”, Leadership & Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, Harvard Business Review, January 2008).  Here is how:

Cash flow modeling: Companies often do not fairly compare the projected discounted cash flow from a new investment with that generated from current operations because they assume that current cash flow will remain constant in perpetuity. 

In fact, as Christensen et. al., explain, this may not be the case: in the absence of continuous “innovation investment”, the more likely outcome is a “decline in performance” in existing operations.  Without this downward adjustment, however, financial analysis creates a “systematic bias” against innovation in new products or processes – green or otherwise.  

Asset lifetime: Financial managers may mistakenly assume that that an asset’s usable lifetime should be based simply by its depreciation period, rather than its “competitive lifetime”.  Said differently, even though the continued use of an existing asset generates a more attractive return in the near-term (typically because capital equipment costs are already sunk and therefore not included in the calculation) than an investment in a new asset, it may not be the best decision for a company if it wants to maintain its competitiveness (and cash flow) longer-term. 

A famous example cited by Christensen et. al., is the case of Nucor and US Steel.  Nucor invested in new minimills that yielded a low average cost of production. Instead of following suit, US Steel stuck with its existing mills because the marginal cost of producing incremental steel was lower than investing in minimills (because it was simply putting excess capacity to use) and therefore more financially attractive in the short term.  

In this case, US Steel relied on marginal cost analysis to inform near-term production decisions that was insufficient for making longer term investment decisions.  As Christensen et. al., point out, “When creating new capabilities is the issue, the relevent marginal costs is actually the full cost of creating the new.”  As a result, US Steel’s average production cost remained much higher than Nucor’s and Nucor was able to out compete US Steel longer term.  

Applied to the green space, many companies may decide to defer investment in greener technologies given the upfront capital requirement to do so.  This decision may extend the life of less efficient technologies, manufacturing processes or products in the market.  Yet, it may prove disadvantageous longer term as other competitors or new entrants make more aggressive investments that generate a more sustainable competitive advantage when carbon caps become more restrictive longer term. 

Quarterly earnings: Companies that focus on quarterly earnings may systematically under invest in innovation as they are not rewarded by the market for doing so.  Given that the time horizon for green may take years to pay off, green initiatives may likely be underfunded relative to initiatives that are able to contribute sooner to earnings. 

Marketers need to think strategically about their investment in green.  Caps on carbon emissions will reset the competitive playing field, though they may be imposed gradually over years, if not decades.  Early movers  may enjoy a competitive advantage in the market based on their brand, products or cost position.   

There is a good chance companies will underinvest in green due to regulatory uncertainty and the misuse of financial practices that may favor investments that yield near-term benefits at the expense of long term competitiveness.  

Marketers must understand and compensate for bias that leads to underinvestment in green.  Formulate a strategic vision for green, properly balance the risks and rewards and invest for the long haul.  Your shareholders will thank you.


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