The Cape Wind Project: The Importance of Strategic Messaging

A student team in The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2018 conducted this speculative case analysis in their “Sustainable Brand Marketing” course for the ill-fated Cape Wind offshore wind farm in Cape Cod, Mass. The team consisted of Julia Barnes, Taylor Mikell, Julia Lyon, and Randy Baron. This article was primarily written and adapted for the Review by Ms. Barnes.

The case study is a lesson in what can happen when one loses control of the narrative surrounding a controversial project and fails to invest strategically in stewarding innovation through the gauntlet of implementation. This is what can happen when strategic messaging is undervalued – the first offshore wind farm in America stalled in 2015 and is considered dead.

Jim Gordon, a Boston entrepreneur who made his fortune in energy, conceived of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm as the next step in his mission to provide efficient and environmentally sound energy. After all, wind power had already proved successful in Europe and the technology was becoming more sophisticated every year. The cost of successful wind power generation in countries like Denmark and Germany was even as low as $.04 per KW hour. Gordon had also identified an attractive location – Horseshoe Shoal, off the coast of Hyannis Port, Mass. where a 130-turbine farm could theoretically make an extremely significant dent in the use of fossil fuel for residents of Cape Cod. With depth and wave conditions that made construction of these huge turbines feasible, Gordon was looking at an investment of over a billion dollars to see his dream of offshore wind energy come to life.

However, he faced a number of issues in executing the Cape Wind vision. First, Gordon immediately ran into extreme and well-funded opposition from rich property owners along the coast who did not want to see their ocean view marred by wind turbines. People from the Koch Brothers to Bunny Mellon to Walter Cronkite joined forces behind the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (APNS): a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) group flush with cash and influence who set out to discredit Gordon and undercut the validity of the Cape Wind project. Second, Cape Wind faced prominent political opposition. The influence and connections of the APNS board members wreaked havoc for Cape Wind’s political standing and extensive lobbying efforts damaged the progress of what would have otherwise been a highly embraced endeavor. Finally, Cape Wind was an expensive undertaking – one whose fluctuations in cost had significant impact on its timeline.

Problem Analysis: Well-funded NIMBYism – The coast of Massachusetts along Nantucket Sound is home to many extremely wealthy and influential residents. Exhibit 8 shows the span of wealth that runs from Oyster Harbor to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis. These multi million-dollar views would be impacted by the construction of Cape Wind. The obstruction was enough to have them form APNS and arm it with millions of dollars in funds, high-powered lobbying efforts, and a massive public relations campaign to discredit and destroy Cape Wind. As APNS alleged, Cape Wind would negatively impact commercial and recreational boating, impair fishing, harm tourism, kill bird populations and upset the Cape’s tax base with property value decline. While citing factually based evidence to the contrary, Gordon also answered these claims with impact studies and the support of Clean Power Now, a pro-wind, grassroots community group with pennies compared to APNS. APNS was skilled in enlisting Chambers of Commerce, town government, fishermen, lobstermen and boaters to their cause – a middle-class demographic that had little in common with the rich individuals behind the AstroTurf movement.

Political opposition – APNS rallied local, state and federal politicians against Cape Wind. More importantly, they seeded a multi-year lobbying campaign to entrench these negative opinions in legislators’ minds when the creation of regulations arose. The message around Cape Wind was not even a debate about the validity of wind power – members of both sides of the issue of climate change were against it. The singularity of their opposition put Gordon in a space where his endeavor alone was up for debate. He was losing his brand identity to APNS and a national political debate that painted his project with a dark brush. Governmental support was critical to the success of the wind industry. Each year in which Congress enacted a production tax credit for the wind industry, installations boomed and then stagnated when the credit expired. An amenable Congress was key to the growth of the wind industry.

Cost – Jim Gordon had spent millions already. Continued public dismay, political opposition and bad press was going to delay and complicate every forward step of Cape Wind. Without tackling these things head on, Gordon could be setup to waste significant time and money in repetitive and delaying impact studies, debates and legislative battles. Because of the singularity of opposition, this inefficiency could make his project at risk of being surpassed by other initiatives, losing the benefits of being a first-to-market pioneer.

Recommendation: Our recommendation is twofold and hinges off the acknowledgment that Gordon and Cape Wind have failed to publicly define their brand identity in spite of their opposition. First, Gordon needs to amplify the support for wind power on a national level and turn up the urgency with environmental groups to push for wind power. Through alliances with national environmental groups that already support him and the ask they match funding levels with APNS, Gordon can make the debate about wind power more about a national shift to renewable energy and less about his project specifically. A national public relations campaign, with full branding behind wind as a powerful component in the United States’ renewable energy future (not Cape Wind as a project) would position pro-wind forces to secure public support from politicians on the issue of offshore wind power – ensuring they would not condemn a single project. Cape Wind would be the first offshore wind project in the United States, and needs to be positioned as a leap forward in renewable energy innovation. The offshore wind project can serve as a state and national example of technological expertise and the future of clean energy.  On a local level, Clean Power Now and Gordon need to mirror the PR campaign with their own facts about the impact of Cape Wind. They also need to invest in a similar lobbying effort to make sure that APNS is not getting too far ahead of them in the statehouse and in Congress. Dovetailing off the national effort would undercut the power of the NIMBY influencers as well. Rich interests may still feel negatively about the project, but they are not going to be swayed, so effort must be focused elsewhere.

Second, Gordon needs to utilize the fact that 81% of Massachusetts residents actually support wind power to reconnect with the middle class residents of the Cape and educate them about the project in ways that he has not invested in: focusing on the job creation, improved recreational fishing and energy cost savings they would all benefit from. Working with Clean Power Now to place op-eds, host meetings and canvass communities would help spread his message on a grassroots level, invalidating the flashy, empty ads of APNS and connect his brand identity to community value and economic growth. These recommendations will be expensive and add to Gordon’s financial burden, but investing now in national and local campaigns will save him in the long run from more litigation, more erroneous studies and more cost-compounding delays to realizing Cape Wind. The only way he can keep his costs reasonable is to keep his timeline real and his political waters smooth – our recommendations do that and will help see offshore wind power come to the Cape.