Blog.

Where to put the “Climate” in Climate Tech

meghan newell turned profile
Meghan Newell

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Emerson Collective’s Building a Consequential Climate Company event. While filled with thoughtful insights [on crafting a mission, creating content, and pitching your ideas], what I found myself returning to was an issue I dealt with frequently while working on Watershed’s brand. How do we address the idea of “climate” in an atmosphere that has politicized the term?

As always with messaging, it depends on who you’re talking to.

The politics of words

Gabe Kleinman lead a fascinating panel composed of representatives from liberal politics (David Simas formerly of the Obama Foundation), community (Land Arose of the Waverly Street Foundation), and a conservative perspective (Benjamin Backer, author of The Conservative Environmentalist). Backer was particularly memorable and dominated a good deal of the discussion. I hung on every word, hungry for the clear articulation of the young, conservative position and looking for creative insight: “Climate is a loaded term.” said Backer “You can get people to buy into climate without saying climate, and tap into their emotions about other things – conservation, nature, stewardship are words we can all agree upon.”

[Simas added some polling based facts:

“Climate change” causes a 20-25% change in response.

But three things came us as real for people:

  1. save people money + a job that pays enough for a middle class life
  2. Health: clean air and clean water
  3. We/America need this cause we’re in a competition

Among 18-22 year old voters, voters are equal amounts conservative and liberal, but men are way more conservative. Of those men, over half are moderate and 70% are non college. The position of these young man can be articulated as “why are people always telling me what I should be doing- which car, website, thing to say”.

I found myself internally challenging the applicability of the assertions based on my own experience. ]

Even as this person came alive in my mind, I found myself internally challenging the applicability of these assertions based on my own experience.

A home for climate

When I began at Watershed in January of 2022, a consistent topic of conversation was where our product sat in the “ESG, sustainability, climate” spectrum. Watershed builds software that helps companies measure their emissions, model reductions, reduce and remove emissions with a marketplace of vendors, and report on their progress to regulatory bodies.

Co-founder Christian Andersen was especially eloquent and insistent that we were making Climate software. Behind this was both an earnest desire to impact the climate problem AND a small company needing to keep its focus. Would market forces demand we wade into supporting the more mushy S and G of ESG to find a true market fit?

For two years we tried to stay true to our core mission - we make climate software. The rushing tide of CSRD regulations (which regulate not just emissions but water and garbage) and job titles (turns out there are not people whose role is “Climate Lead”, however much some of us at Watershed loved the sound of the title). There are Sustainability professionals. When they look at our website, they want to see themselves and their needs reflected there. Slowly, our product marketing has evolved to reflect the reality of the market.

From a brand perspective, we had the opposite misgiving. The very fear of the climate boogey man articulated by Backer haunted our messaging.

At the heart of it, Watershed is enterprise software - not an inherently emotionally compelling category. But unlike enterprise software that might manage your contracts, organize your data, or track your expenses, we have an emotional, relevant, time-based problem we are providing the tools to impact - something that compels people to protest in the streets. To ignore this is to shoot ourselves in the foot. And yet…

When we launched our brand campaign early in 2023, our initial messaging test was trying very hard to walk the line between selling ourselves as business first vs mission/emotion driven. Watershed’s brand focused co-founder Taylor Francis was especially attuned to the perspective of the C-suite folks who might be pulling the trigger on purchasing our software. For every headline that used the word climate, we created a subhead mentioning business. We knew how we felt, but didn’t want to alienate our audience.

However, when we tested these executions, our instincts were proved correct – saying everything to everybody usually says nothing to anyone. As a upstart brand that is trying to enter a market, being dramatic trumped being safe. We found the pure messaging worked better by far, and the more we leaned in to emotion, the better we did. Why was this?

Climate tech is not a monolith

While I have no doubt there are companies, especially those in hard infrastructure, that must speak first and foremost to politicians, policy makers, and perhaps more conservative business and industrial leaders that could readily fall into the persona described by Backer and Simas, what I found at Watershed was that the users of our product, our community and our advocates, were predominantly young women and older men who had moved into the “legacy building/give back” period of their lives. These people had opted-in to sustainability roles at their companies and were naturally predisposed to messages that emphasized the meaning in the role they wished to play in their careers. Speaking to them about the value of the work they were able to do with our product created loyalty and love. Many of us find climate to be the most fundamental and engaging challenge of our times – and those who are making their career from it predominately come from that camp. Conservation, nature, stewardship may also be compelling (and I’m tempted to try with these insights), but those terms can also strike as apologizing and soft stepping [wishy-washy].

The advocates

Enter the second lightening talk that will live rent free in my brain: [xx gave a talk on xxx] Xx divided the employees reacting to VPPA agreements into three groups - “active, agnostic, and annoyed”. You have to love such a memorable, well articulated, and inherently resonant device.

Her take-away: “Unless the annoyed are active VPs, you can ignore them.” Not everyone is going to want what you are selling. Who do you really need to win over to your side with this messaging? Now speak to them with every tool you have – including climate.

…tech

“Climate tech” has created a category so broad as to be non-descriptive. There are many kinds of climate tech companies across many categories, and what works for one may not work for the other. When it comes to describing what your product does, therefore, “climate” may not actually be useful.

When it comes to the impact and emotional resonance of what it provides – first, know they audience. Then, don’t be afraid. Climate is a string, and it just might be the right one to play.