Remember JaMarcus Russell? Former Louisiana State University quarterback who could throw the ball from one end zone to the other from his knees? Drafted No. 1 by the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and out of football three years later because, well, he really wasn’t that good?
Russell came to mind when I heard about the epic fail of the Solar Roadways unveiling in Sandpoint, Idaho, two weeks ago. The lesson from both is this: Don’t always believe the hype you’re hearing.
In 2014 and 2015, everyone was buzzing about the potential of Solar Roadways (and I do mean everyone). Slick marketing videos, combined with an almost unheard of (in the solar industry) social media blitz, had even the most uninitiated solar enthusiast convinced that solar roadways would power our futures.
Who knew the “breakthrough” technology could be foiled by a poor laminating machine? And once they’d “fixed” that problem, the flipped switch produced a light display that can only be described as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, pre-renovation.
So how do you spend two years hyping a product, only to have an unveiling that fails as badly as Solar Roadways? According to Leah Wilkinson, founder of Wilkinson + Associates, an Arlington, Va., based public relations and marketing firm with technology and solar specializations, there is often an extraordinary desire— and almost visceral need — for technology inventors and entrepreneurs to talk about their new product/service, how fantastic it is and all the problems it is going to solve.
“On one hand, it is great to have an organization or a spokesperson that is passionate and ready to share their technology with the world,” Wilkinson says. “On the other hand, it’s very risky to ‘launch’ and be so vocal about a product or service before it is tested and available, from a marketing and PR perspective.”
And when overeager inventors start believing their own “champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” they can rush into unveiling their product and, as the Solar Roadways team found out the hard way, become the punchline to a searingly bad joke.
“You lose credibility — your company, your team, your investors, your customers and the public no longer trust in your word and your ability to deliver,” Wilkinson said. “Recapturing trust and credibility is one of the hardest hills to climb for an organization. This event is a great case study for why it is critically important to have seasoned communications professionals advising you.”
Can Solar Roadways recover from its recent launch fiasco? Only time will tell (but given what little I’ve seen from the technology, I have serious doubts). But the “Shambles in Sandpoint” won’t quickly fade from the public’s memory.
What’s most maddening is that the solar industry is at a critical tipping point in the minds of most consumers — and it didn’t need this overhyped, undertested pipe dream to embolden solar’s opponents to shade the industry with even sharper tongues.
Let’s hope Solar Roadways returns to the inventor’s shed until it can prove it’s actually worthy of the spotlight. As JaMarcus Russell will tell you, only tragedy can follow if it doesn’t.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.