On the Grid

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Wheels, via Better Place and Nissan-Renault
Wheels, via Better Place and Nissan-Renault

Nothing about Better Place's electric car business looks like the automotive industry as we know it (see sidebar below). And for Addis Creson, the branding and design consultancy charged with building the one-year-old startup's brand, that's a good thing.

Better Place puts electric cars and their energy supply together in a way that founder and CEO Shai Agassi says is more akin to the cell phone industry than the auto industry. You get the zero-emission car from Better Place at a low cost, and then pay the company to use its ubiquitous plugs, the electric-auto equivalent to cell towers. But consumers aren't used to getting their car from the place where they fuel it, nor are they accustomed to thinking about paying for gas like paying Verizon. And with Better Place not rolling out until 2011, and then only in Israel and Denmark, most won't get to see what the new model looks like in practice for quite some time.

That's what Addis Creson was facing when Better Place CMO Joe Paluska asked the Berkeley-based design shop to build a brand for the 21st century—something sophisticated, contemporary and internet-based with global scale. But how do you do that for a business that's not the Chevy Volt and not Chevron, but aspires to eventually replace both?

"We didn't really think of it as, we're creating a new car or we're creating a new energy company," says Steven Addis, the design agency's CEO and founder. "We really thought of it as, we're creating a brand that should symbolize the break from oil and reflect the next 100 years of this combined transportation and energy mindset. We didn't feel like we needed to tell the specific story so soon. Right now, it's about focusing on the need and get people talking about electric as a solution."

Scene from a Better Place animated video
Scene from a Better Place animated video
Even the company's name is more evocative than descriptive. The concept started when Agassi was asked to think of ways to make the world a better place. In 2005, Israel-born Agassi joined Young Global Leaders, a group of power players under 40 invited by the World Economic Forum to envision a better global future. The forum assigned Agassi—at the time, the products and technology group president and an executive board member of the world's largest business software company, SAP—to focus on climate change. He decided eliminating global oil consumption was a way to reduce carbon output. By October 2007, Agassi had left SAP to launch Better Place, a company he named after the YGL challenge.

So, outside of Agassi's story, the name Better Place doesn't read "electric cars" and, for a relatively unknown company with global aspirations, some might see that as a problem. But Addis says a name that doesn't sound like consumer branding works for Better Place because it communicates the idealism and optimism that's at its core. While heightened climate consciousness and runaway gas prices have opened the door for that idealism and radical alternatives to the current automotive model, Paluska, who came to Better Place from the company's public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, still thinks the company's biggest obstacle is the status quo. People have entrenched relationships with their cars and gas stations, and electric vehicles aren't a brand new idea—they have a history, one that has included some major hurdles. The fact that Better Place is designing solutions to those hurdles to promote widespread adoption, like a recharging infrastructure and ways to work around limited battery capacity, is not the story. At least not yet.

Addis says Better Place will initially operate more like a movement than a brand for consumers, so people first align with the global need for electric cars. The company will wait to tell the tactical story—individual benefit, cost and how to use the service—until the infrastructure and cars are in place. To kick things off, this summer Addis released the company's branding and a Web video that animates Better Place's cyan tear-shaped logo to illustrate its vision of a world off oil. Shapes derived from the quarter-circle (what Addis calls "the switch") depict the global oil addiction and then the antidote: the brand's four pillars—plug, people, planet and prosperity—that eventually come together to form the logo. The company used one basic shape to build the story to highlight how Better Place is only reordering components consumers are familiar with to create a solution.

Looking ahead, the logo will need to move from the Web to cars, without the help of copy or voice-overs. The car logos will be blue ("Green seemed too trite," Addis says) because of the color's emotive qualities, unlike the chrome logos automakers primarily use.

Paluska says the next step is to foster the movement online with a portal to house Better Place original content as well as user-generated videos, images and stories about what's happening in the world of electric transportation, even if it doesn't concern the company explicitly. Recent stories about a 14-year-old girl who rode her bike from Minnesota to D.C. collecting signatures in support of electric vehicles and Beijing Olympics buses with swappable batteries are fair game—the content doesn't need to further Better Place, but it should link it to the latest in clean transportation so, when its cars actually hit the road, a global community will be built and waiting.

"It's not a car, it's not a particular process; it's a movement and getting people excited about that movement," says Addis. "So, we had to create a brand that would work at that level, but then seamlessly morph into a consumer product. This is truly category creation."

What is Better Place?

Better Place is planning to build and operate an electric recharge grid, the infrastructure that's meant to support widespread use of zero-emission, all-electric cars. The one-year-old startup, with headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. and satellite operations in Tel Aviv, also plans to sell vehicles, but not as a profit driver. Better Place compares its business model to that of cell service providers. Profits will be based on consumer subscriptions to the grid—they'll buy miles, like minutes, bundled in unlimited, monthly maximum or pay as you go plans. Better Place will distribute low-cost vehicles, which may even be free in some markets—like cell phones, which are often inexpensive or free with a contract. For CEO and founder Shai Agassi, this is a service business, because a ubiquitous grid is what will make electric cars—and environmentally responsible driving—practical.

Addressing electric car technology's biggest issues to date—the lack of charging infrastructure and short battery life—the grid will include charging stations in parking spots at work and retail locations, so parking becomes refueling time. With battery capacity only at 100 miles, Better Place is designing swap stations, where a car's depleted battery can be replaced with a fully charged one in the time it takes to fill a tank of gas, to make long distance trips possible.

So far, Denmark's largest utility company, Danish Oil & Natural Gas, and Israel have invested in Better Place networks. Partnering with automaker Renault-Nissan Alliance to mass-produce electric cars with removable batteries, Better Place plans to have close to 100,000 vehicles in Israel by 2011. Shortly after, cars will follow in Denmark, where Better Place batteries will store DONG's excess wind energy. Until then, Agassi will continue to present Better Place to heads of state, energy companies and car manufacturers to engineer tax breaks to make electric appealing to drivers, to supply his grid with clean energy and to get more all-electric vehicles coming down the production line.
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