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CHARGE meets Timothy Kim, ibV Energy Partners

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As we approach CHARGE Energy Branding North America (June 1-2 | The Royal Sonesta Houston TX), we’ve been asking our top speakers and partners to reveal their approach to branding in energy.

In this article, we speak to Timothy Kim, founder and CEO of ibV Energy Partners. Before founding ibV Energy in 2017, Tim held senior roles in international finance and M&A. He got his start in the renewable energy industry as a deal team member with KfW IPEX-Bank, Germany’s largest international project finance institution. ibV Energy Partners are direct investors and developers of large-scale solar and storage power plants across the United States who specialize in on-the-ground development at a very early-stage. The Company’s innovative strategies have led to collaboration with Toyota Motors, Dow Corning, Louisville Gas & Electric, and several other non-traditional buyers of solar generated energy. Likewise, the Company has led the charge into heavy fossil-fuel states, breaking open new markets such as Kentucky and Louisiana, where it remains the largest developer of renewable energy projects to date.

The interviewer, Dr Fridrik Larsen, is the founder of CHARGE Energy Branding.

How much emphasis do you place on emotion versus rationality when building an energy brand? Does “feeling” and emotive resonance have a place within your brand strategy? Our approach and inherently – our culture – is one that is driven by deep research and analysis. In fact, we’re one of the only developers that have a dedicated Analytics division where our investments originate. With branding, however, it’s difficult to react to big data due to the many facets of interpretation. For instance, there has been much written about how to grow followers on Twitter, indeed an entire influencer industry has popped up based on this, however quantity does not equal quality. Where emotions vs. rationality becomes jumbled is in the intense desire to brand via digital platforms – in this case growing ‘followers’ – and reconciling that against who is following us. So, we seek this ‘force multiplier’ where perhaps it’s not about how many ‘followers’ one has per se, but the types of followers.

This is just one aspect of branding and it’s possibly a micro aspect but it speaks to the understanding that companies – especially B2B energy companies – cannot fall into the emotions trap of branding, but at the same time cannot always find the patience to sift through big data to consistently market to a niche audience. Thus, I would say that yes, ‘feeling’ and emotive resonance inevitably has a place within our brand strategy but it’s not always quantifiable.

What impact does ESG have on brand identity now, and how important will it be in the future?
ESG investing has a very big impact on brand identity today – not just for traditional energy companies. I will be on a podcast called ESG Decoded, also based in Houston, to speak more about this, but we are witnessing a sizable attitude change amongst shareholder and financing institutions that is driving ESG policies across entire industries. Certain banks that were once the largest financiers of fossil fuel plants are no longer financing such projects – or at least balancing out with renewables to create their own ‘net zero’ strategy. We saw what happened to Exxon Mobil last year when one of their Board Directors challenged its ESG related activities and today, our company is seriously discussing offtake options with no less than six major oil & gas companies to drive down Scope II emissions – we chose to speak to these companies based on our perception of the strength of their ESG commitments. In fact, we see Scope II and III leading the way in this segment when it comes to adding more renewable energy systems in the US for the foreseeable future.

But instead of speaking about the benefits of ESG, what are the disadvantages in not pursuing ESG related investments, say at a fossil fuel company? Three issues come to mind: First, we see ESG as a generational issue, second, access to capital markets and third, balance sheet considerations. In a nutshell, good luck attracting the best workers and sustaining your talent pool if they don’t believe in your brand and ESG commitments, second, again, lack of financing for projects and working capital and third, ratings agencies have already included ESG and sustainability investments into their metrics. I think it’s safe to say that ESG is no longer an option but a requirement to enhance one’s own brand.

What do you think are the main challenges for energy companies regarding branding and communication?
If you’re a company that relies heavily on fossil fuels, the main challenge is environmental credibility. There was a time not too long ago where a company could paper over this – with effective branding, that is. I recently listened to a podcast about plastics recycling – I urge everyone to learn more about this and how the power of branding can make an entire society swallow the blue pill (Matrix reference). Today, papering over your environmental defects is very difficult and quite unsustainable, especially if you’re a public company.

So if you’re a fossil fuel emitter lacking pro-environmental credibility, how do you overcome this? The answer is simply – by investing in pro-environmental initiatives and leveraging communications to share your success with first, your shareholders and second, the younger generation who will soon form the backbone of your management. The beauty here is that the US electricity market is already structured to where a corporation can come in and purchase electricity from the wholesale market – or at least lobby it’s local Utility to solicit clean energy for its own use. This is how our company has come to work with Toyota Motors and DowCorning in KY. These companies see a tremendous brand and financial benefit from offtaking energy from clean resources and collaborated with Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities to source said clean energy from our plant.

What advice would you leave brand and marketing leaders going into 2022/23?
I’d like to narrow this communication down to the hundreds of smaller development shops like ours that have regional or national ambitions. When we started – and due to the culture at our ParentCo – branding and marketing was not a priority. In fact, our parentco – ib vogt GmbH – is the largest pure solar developer in the world that not many have heard of. At ibV Energy, we chose to focus on the core business of development and investments, and not worry about the brand marketing side… until we hit a snag with community relations and outright disparagement of our brand by folks opposed to some of our developments.

So, what I would say to startups and small developers is that branding does not need to take up much money. Social media, local interviews, town halls etc. start with these and build from there. Find out who your audience is first and understand how not having a brand strategy can impact your core business activities. The saying is true: you can take hold of the narrative or let the narrative take hold of you.

What is the general perception of the brand within your business versus how it was a few years ago? How has it changed, and what are your hopes for your brand in the next few years?
Big companies like to work with big companies. I heard this many years ago and I knew back then, that it was hardly true. I think digitization has changed this thinking but so has brand management. Why is it that we – a 25 person company – are approached by some of the biggest names, including Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. to offtake electricity from our solar and battery storage projects? Times have changed where branding and marketing meant having to deploy a sizable budget. Once you are able to manage the brand and focus on the right audience, then you can create demand to attract larger and more sophisticated partners. I think we see this not just in the energy industry, but across many others, especially in defense and national security – where I initially came from – an industry with thousands of small American companies hardly anyone has ever heard of servicing the nation’s interest. So let’s put away this perception that big companies like to work with other big companies, and start focusing on deliverability, products and shaping the stories to create a strong foundation for brand management.

As for ibV Energy, we will continue to deploy our marketing campaigns to a narrow audience which include specific sectors that can be our long term offtaking partners. I don’t see this changing – it’s also important to know your limits and prevent mission creep, in this regard.

Timothy Kim will host a keynote session at CHARGE Energy Branding North America (June 1-2 | The Royal Sonesta Houston TX). Register to attend, and join +300 C-Level energy utilities, retailers, developers, power producers and e-mobility leaders in Houston TX to learn, network, and deliver the US energy transition here now; https://charge.events/usa/tickets/