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.
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There is no hope:
Fiasco you call it? There was a bump in the road, no pun intended. If that was considered a fiasco I’d hate to see what a decent unveiling would look like? Did they not have enough people to watch? Did you really think hundreds of thousands of people would go to Sandpoint, Idaho to see an unveiling of new technology that has not been tested by the public? You seem naive for an author. You also don’t seem to know what a fiasco is either. A fiasco would be Samsung’s Note 7 phones exploding in the hands of the public.
Thanks for writing, FangerZero. I truly appreciate your interest in the topic.
I have to say this: I’ve been writing professionally for 29 years and have been called a LOT of things, but naive is a new one. And as a Cleveland sports fan (sans this year), I’m pretty sure I know what a fiasco is.
But I do think you missed the entire point of the article. Maybe it was just us in the solar industry (it wasn’t), but I had 100s of people ask me if Solar Roadways was going to work. After talking with actual solar experts, they told me it was not. Which is what I told the people who asked. Cool idea, slick PR videos, not expected to work.
No, I didn’t think hundreds of thousands of people would go to Sandpoint. But after all the hype (as mentioned, largely hype and no real proof-of-concept), you’d think that when they were ready to unveil the product AS proof-of-concept, they might have actually tested it beforehand to make sure it was going to work as promised. And then to write a mealy-mouthed “apology” blog post that said they wouldn’t be like politicians and then spent the next 300 words blaming the problems on everything else (a laminating machine? Really?) BUT their own hubris — yeah, they deserve to get mocked for that.
The essential point of the article — which may have been lost on you — was that if you’re going to hype yourself as much as they did for TWO YEARS, then you’d better be able to walk the walk (and having watched Mel Turpin, Brady Quinn and Joe Charboneau up close and personal, I know the difference between hype and reality). They didn’t. It was a fiasco. And they’d better not produce any more slick videos until they actually have a product that works.
I can’t believe they actually built it. They knew it was a bad idea, but they did it anyway. Really hoping they don’t try it again.
Thanks for sharing! I do a lot of research in the solar industry (mostly solar panels/roofing) and never came across this. This is insane!
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