What’s Redefining A Category?

The banjo wasn't a new instrument when comedian Steve Martin started playing it as a kid. It had been around for 100 years. Players in the genre became virtuosos, and you can hear it in everything from bluegrass and country to pop/rock.

Likewise, Martin hardly invented the genre of stand-up comedy.

But Martin was the first to use the banjo as a comedic prop. He took two distinct elements and, in the process, created a new category, becoming known as the banjo-playing comedian (and the guy with an arrow through his head).

How Redefining Your Category Benefits Your Brand

Before his banjo-playing stage act, Steve Martin was a successful comedic writer with a gig writing for one of the most successful TV shows—The Smothers Brothers. And while he was very successful as a writer, especially for his age, he was no headliner on his own.

But the moment he picked up his banjo and fastened his arrow on his head, the audience became receptive to his brand of absurdist, highbrow topical humor—and they couldn’t get enough.

He became a category of one. Fame and riches followed.

Brand Redefinition Happens In Clean Tech Too

Biofuels may be biofuels, and batteries may be batteries. Still, both categories have been redefined over time as market leaders jump over the current sideboards that keep an industry in its lane.

Today, we have ethanol blends, renewable diesel, biogas, biomass, biodiesel, and different technologies to make biofuels. Likewise, lithium batteries, zinc batteries, sodium-ion batteries, redox flow batteries, hydrogen storage, and sub-categories dot the energy storage landscape.

These advancements are mind-blowing for a guy who didn't get beyond high school chemistry, which is precisely the problem; how do you tell the difference, and why should anyone care?

Why Creating A New Clean Tech Category Is So Important

Historians will tell you that one of the fatal mistakes of every fallen empire is trying to fight a two-front war. No matter how powerful, the odds of winning in business or combat when simultaneously fighting multiple opponents is slim.

Too often, companies fight what I call "trench warfare," trying to gain inches of market share by quibbling over performance percentage advantages and prices with similar technologies.

Lithium battery companies are Example A in this World War I style combat. Don't get me wrong; I admire the scientists and engineers wringing out incremental performance improvements. Still, how can they ever be successful in the commercial sector when the land beneath them looks like France in 1916?

Meanwhile, it may very well turn out that incremental improvements in lithium batteries are irrelevant because electrons degrade faster than hydrogen gas, a completely different energy storage solution without the burdens associated with lithium mining.

I'm not projecting that the lithium battery storage industry is dead, but rather than compete against others in the same territory, open terrain is where you can gain the most ground.

Heat Pumps Are An Example Of A New Clean Tech Category

The big names in heating and cooling have been touting incremental energy efficiency improvements in their equipment for decades (see: Energy Star ratings). Still, it's the heat pump that's redefining the industry.

Traditional natural gas or electric furnaces can't compete with heat pumps because standard equipment must use energy to heat the air before circulating it. In contrast, a heat pump is just finding air at the optimal temperature and moving it.

As a result, cost-conscious and environmentally sensitive homeowners and building owners are moving towards the heat pump in droves. The traditional industry leaders are playing catch up to find a banjo and arrow of their own.

Create Your Clean Tech Category For Success

"Don't follow the crowd" is a cliché because it's true. The real money will never be in incremental improvements because they are by nature ephemeral.

Don't be "in" an industry; "be" the industry. Nike didn't invent the sneaker, but they redefined it as several verticals of athletic shoes. Sugared water existed before Coca-Cola, but they created an entirely new category. Pepsi responded by creating its category—the Un Cola. And it's just as accurate for cleantech as for consumer products.

I love cleantech startups like ChargerHelp!, which build equity by working with leading EV charging companies to maintain their far-flung network of chargers. They aren't competing to build faster chargers or place chargers in a grocery store parking lot or multi-family complexes.

They have an open space to define with a simple proposition: Hire us. Your customers will have a more reliable charging network, and you'll support workforce development in underserved communities. That's not an easily co-opted value proposition.

A few of my other favorite cleantech startups who are also creating their categories are:

  • Nth Cycle transforms the outputs of electronics recycling and wastes from existing mines into high-quality critical minerals ready for use again.
  • Nitricity uses solar energy to turn lightning into nitrogen, bypassing the current fossil intense process.
  • MiTerro is re-engineering plant-based agricultural waste to replace single-use plastic and paper materials and giving additional incomes to farmers worldwide.
  • None of these companies pioneered solar energy, electronics recycling, or food waste reuse, but all of them have put a new spin on those topics and have the potential to create niches in which they become the Steve Martin of their brand.

    Now, if they can just learn to play the banjo…

    CleanTech Focus