Solar Impulse: a comms conundrum

Imagine working on a project where the goalposts are constantly changing.

Now imagine the entire stadium is also moving, and you don’t know when, or where, it is going to be at any given time.

If you’ve got that image down, you might start to have an idea of the sort of challenges faced by the Solar Impulse commercial partners during the project’s groundbreaking flight around the world (the first by a solar-powered plane).

Responsible for ABB’s communications activities surrounding the project, I wanted to make sure that its key positioning statements would be relayed effectively, and that the partnership would lead to a noticeable bump in awareness, in line with the huge global interest in the Solar Impulse.

One of the advantages I had, when formulating the strategy, was that ABB can point to several examples of products and services that exemplify the Solar Impulse message, (the promotion of energy efficiency solutions and the mainstream adoption of renewable energy sources as a realistic approach to sustainable economic development). This message was spread by the plane’s pilots (also founders of the project) at every stop along the way. With a huge portfolio at our disposal, the plan was to pick out some key stories that could prove the validity of their message and the shared ABB/ Solar Impulse values, releasing them at times that would coincide with peak interest in the project in a particular region.

For the US we chose microgrids and the Internet of Things, sustainable transport for Europe and solar energy for the Middle East. Each of these topics refers back to Solar Impulse (whether in terms of its design, operation or message) and also to ABB activities (products, services and values). As the plane moved from one region to the next, we rolled out our content (articles, blogs, press releases, social media content and videos) and held our own events, providing news media with fresh angles on the Solar Impulse story and positioning ABB as a pioneering digital technology company.

As mentioned earlier, it was a hugely complex operation. Because Solar Impulse is highly weather dependent, one never knew when the plane would next take off or even where it would land next! This made forward planning and logistics subject to last minute changes and the maintenance of goodwill essential. In addition the highly experimental nature of the plane puts the project in the “high risk” category. The pioneering element of Solar Impulse, with pilots ready to stay in the air for days at a time, putting their lives on the line, is clearly one of the reasons that it garnered so much interest. At the same time, it meant that every flight could, potentially, be the last and that there was absolutely no guarantee of success.

Luckily for everyone, the project did succeed, and Solar Impulse achieved its goal. For us,  the outcome was overwhelmingly positive. The ABB/ Solar Impulse communications campaign led to a demonstrably large increase in brand awareness and media coverage (both general and trade). We also saw significant employee engagement, with thousands turning up to visit the plane at its various landing locations, making the parallels with the innovative nature of their own work, as Solar Impulse founder Bertrand Piccard made clear at ABB Silicon Valley.

Of course, you can always do things better and we learned many lessons. Luckily for us, the project went on long enough that we were able to implement many of them along the way. Perhaps the main one is just common sense: that the more you put in the more you get out. Simply investing heavily as a “main partner” in a project is not enough. That just buys you the tool. You then have to work out how to get the most out of it. To do so requires a lot of energy and resources. The key to making the campaign work? A focused approach, the invaluable help of hardworking colleagues across the world, and the willingness of management to spare them.

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