Coskata Branding Non-Food Biofuel

Coskata LogoWith so much controversy surrounding the environmental efficacy of food crop-based biofuels, what can a cellulosic biofuel producer do to distinguish itself? Branding, of course! Coskata, the biofuel maker that uses such sundry feedstocks as switchgrass, municipal waste and old tires, has trademarked “C85” and hopes to make it a brand clearly associated with non-food feedstocks. This information comes from Coskata’s chief marketing officer and VP, Wes Bolsen, who participated in an open chat today via auto partner GM’s live chat program, “Next.”

C85 is something that we trademarked, because we think that people might be willing to pay an extra penny or two for ethanol that comes from non-food based sources. I guess time will tell if we can do this or not.

Seeing how E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is available at less than one percent of gas stations, making “C85” a household name might be a little ambitious for the young biofuel maker. But Coskata considers the criticism of corn and palm oil-based biofuels significant enough to want to distance itself. With auto giant and flex-fuel evangelist GM behind it, a synergistic marketing blitz could put Coskata’s non-food C85 in the public consciousness and, hopefully, GM-made fuel tanks.

Coskata is not the first to try and brand a biofuel in the hopes of boosting its profile. Conserv Fuels hopes to squeeze “those guilty Prius drivers” and create a level of brand loyalty to its biofuel pumps that currently doesn’t exist in the fuel industry. Propel Biofuels is doing the same thing in the Northwest with the expansion of their biodiesel pumps.

However, branding one’s biofuel as specifically “non-food” could be key to getting an increasingly environmentally aware consumer to shell out some extra cash. Will non-food fuels be marketed in the same way as organic foods? Such schemes could wreak havoc on the predictability of what should be a straight-up commodities market, but given that those early adopters are likely to be extremely discerning customers, Coskata might be onto something.

Bolsen also says Coskata is looking into “non-traditional distribution” that could make biofuels available outside of the gas station:

With Coskata’s potential ethanol production being approximately half that of gasoline today, we would expect to see some “non-traditional” distribution going through places like “big-box” retailers in addition to traditional outlets.

Wal-Mart has already committed to reducing the emissions of its gigantic trucking fleet by 25 percent by 2015 as part of a larger greening scheme. Becoming a source of non-food biofuel could be a huge economic windfall for the world’s largest retailer.

Bolsen said he is hoping for “global adoption of the Coskata technology” and that licensing of that technology to third parties could be the fastest way to proliferate the company’s patented thermochemical-biological hybrid process.

Although the company will have to be careful with its licensing partners if it wants to protect the Coskata brand, it’s probably more important to get as much non-food biofuel to as many pumps as possible before they start worrying too much about the Coskata image.