Burkhead Brand Group: Cleantech Marketing as ‘Connective Tissue’

As a publicly-traded corporation, Active Power has a responsibility to communicate with its investors as well as its customers. The Texas-based company [NASDAQ: ACPW] is a global leader in flywheel technologies that are reliable and efficient sources of energy for data centers, hospitals and other operations sensitive to even slight disruptions in electrical supply.  As such, Active Power must convey its value proposition in terms and tone readily understandable to both technical and non-technical audiences.

The unique communications challenge calls not just for brand development skills, but a strong grasp of sustainable energy solutions and the industries that use them. “I needed somebody who understood the markets we’re in,” recalls Mark Ascolese, who set out to find a branding and public relations firm shortly after becoming Active Power’s CEO in 2013. Among those vying for the business was Burkhead Brand Group (BBG), a Raleigh-based firm with unique knowledge of the cleantech marketplace. “BBG came in with several ideas to help drive our brand recognition and leads.”

BBG, founded in 2010, deploys a mix of traditional and emerging media tools in elevating client brands. The approach is ideal for tech-based companies seeking to optimize their marketing budgets. Upon its selection by Active Power, the BBG team quickly honed a winning tagline: “Driven by motion,” three words that sum up the company, its differentiating technology and its customer base. The firm now collaborates regularly with Active Power’s internal communications staff as well as its investor relations department. “BBG is responsible for our strategic voice,” Ascolese says.

BBG_Lgo_(1024x1015).jpgBBG’s knack for crafting company narratives that resonate across diverse audiences and can be delivered by a range of media has helped the firm emerge as a resource for the cleantech industry. “It allows companies to tell relevant and different stories to audiences,” explains Scott Burkhead, BBG’s founder. The approach also keeps client brands from getting lost in today’s noisy media morass. “It allows for a message that gets above the clutter,” he says.

In addition to a variety of tools, timing plays into BBG’s messaging strategy. When Raleigh-based GridBridge, Inc., wanted to move the story of its smartgrid solutions to potential buyers, it called on BBG to assemble a strategy that encompassed earned media, trade-show participation and speaking engagements at industry events. “BBG really got our name out there,” says Chad Eckhardt, chief executive officer of GridBridge, which was spun out of North Carolina State University in January 2012.

With help from BBG, GridBridge boosted its visibility with a presence at DistribuTECH, the world’s largest annual gathering of utility industry and power agency professionals. Complementing that was a widely-read article featuring the start-up. The 1,200-word profile, “GridBridge: A New Contender in Grid Power Electronics?” appeared in Greentech Media, a digital news service covering the business-to-business cleantech industry. “Our goal was to maximize our efforts at the show but minimize our budget,” Eckhardt says.

BBG’s messaging and expertise with media channels and its relationships with journalists help companies like GridBridge put their brands and solutions in front of potential buyers. “In the cleantech space, there is value in understanding,” says Locke Raper, executive director of marketing at BBG. Explaining new technologies to busy reporters means taking time to distill complexities into language that resonates quickly. “We’re not engineers,” Raper says, “but we know how to interpret cleantech themes, and that is appreciated by the press.”

Listening skills, GridBridge’s Eckhardt says, are what set BBG apart from the competition. He was impressed by the willingness of the team to equip himself with a firm command of GridBridge and its business goals. “BBG was really interested in understanding GridBridge,” Eckhardt says. “They want to learn, they’re always thinking and they’re always considering new angles.”

Raper’s nearly two decade-long career has included work for major technology and media names in the U.S. and abroad. In Atlanta, he helped drive new product launches for CNN.com and Turner Broadcasting. After two years with a start-up in Europe, he went to New York City where he worked with Bloomberg, LP, not long after the financial media empire had purchased New Energy Finance and increased its coverage of “sustainability’s” impact on businesses’ bottom line. “That was where I first heard the term ‘cleantech’,” Raper recalls. “It was a validation that this space is important.”

Raper labels agencies like BBG, along with the law and engineering firms that have cultivated cleantech-specific expertise, as the “connective tissue” that helps hold the cluster together. Currently, the firm has about nine cleantech related clients, though retail, healthcare and technology businesses are also prominent in BBG’s portfolio. The firm’s cleantech knowledge occasionally adds value for BBG’s other clients – hospitals, for example, which are eager to embrace reliable power solutions that are also environmentally sound and affordable. “Cleantech gives us an opportunity to touch a lot of other industries,” Raper says.

Though small – BBG employs a staff of 12 – the firm practices big values. Cleantech offers not just exciting market potential, but the opportunity to help companies as they strive to create a more sustainable world. “Over the next 20 years, trillions of dollars will be spent on this,” says Burkhead. “But there is something bigger we ought to enjoy doing.” The cleantech industry offers transformative potential for human health, safety, energy security and job creation on a global scale. “There’s a huge amount of business, but we’re also making a difference,” says Burkhead, a veteran of business-to-business marketing whose bio includes 21 years at the helm of Rockett Burkhead and Winslow, a Triangle ad agency with clients nationwide.

From its offices on the 22nd floor of Two Hanover Square, Burkhead and his team can keep an eye on Raleigh’s rapidly transforming cityscape. BBG opted for the space over suburban locations in order to tap the area’s diverse amenities and quick, youthful pulse. “We like the energy in downtown Raleigh,” says Burkhead. The location appeals to staffers who like to walk, dine, interact and connect amid the constant motion of an urban setting, according to Burkhead. “Where you see construction cranes on the horizon, you have energy.”

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