Random Thoughts from the Chairman | March 18

Steve Gerritson, Vice President of the Economic Development Council of Seattle & King County, Chairman
Steve Gerritson, Vice President of the Economic Development Council of Seattle & King County, Chairman

By Steve Gerritson, WCTA Board Chair

I recently met with a representative of a company that makes lubricants and fuel additives. He came with a barrage of test results and certifications by the USEPA as to the efficacy of their products (which, by the way, offer considerable fuel savings for both diesel and gasoline vehicles). Yet he was unable to gain any traction with fleet operators here. Since his products are being sold all over the world, he could not understand the reluctance with which he was greeted in Seattle. “I thought this was a green city,” was his comment.

Although the reasons for this reluctance are complicated, part of the problem – and probably a large part – is that the well has been poisoned by past experience. There are many fuel additives on the market, all claiming to do wonderful things. Most of them are useless, according to independent testing agencies. Therefore the natural inclination is to assume that the next additive to come along is no different – even if it is. My advice to him was to stress the lubricant (synthetic lubricants are well accepted and proven to perform).

The need for clean tech companies with green products to overcome the past is a serious impediment to market acceptance. In a sociology class I took in college (long ago), a strange phenomenon was demonstrated: people are likely to accept the first statement they hear about a product with which they have had no experience, even if the statement is false; whereas they are unlikely to accept subsequent statements that contradict the first, even if the later statements are true. “First to market” is about more than just timing.

This has implications for how a product should be presented, and will often dictate how the opposition (if there is any) will respond. For example, proponents of “waste to energy” facilities stress resource recovery (energy being a resource), while environmental groups refer to them as incinerators, evoking the bad experiences with them from decades ago. This phenomenon extends to regulatory agencies as well. Graham Allison, in his book on the Cuban missile crisis, developed what he termed an “organizational model” to explain the seemingly irrational behavior of bureaucrats when faced with certain decisions. He found that the tendency is to accept the “conventional wisdom” without question, and to make decisions based on short-term stability. There is an inherent bias against change.

Clearly, the best guarantor of a successful clean tech product is environmental improvement at a lower cost. One way to improve your chances, though, might be to be first to market, have a catchy new description, and don’t rely on sales to the government.