Month: March 2010

Crime and justice…

I’ve never really believed in our justice system, but I’ve been thinking about this recently because I saw someone being beaten up a while ago. I’m going to court as a witness next month and I’ve been feeling increasingly nervous and ill at ease about it.

The person who was attacked (who died later on) was young and the people accused of doing it are even younger – they’re still in their teens. If they’re found guilty, I wonder what the outcome of going to prison or a young offenders unit will be for them.

Will it make them see how wrong what they did was? Will it stop them from ever doing anything like it again? Or is it just the beginning of a cycle of re-offending?

I think prison serves a purpose in keeping really dangerous people off the streets and out of the way of the public for a while, but when it comes to reforming people, I’m just not sure it has any effect.

In 2008, it was found that about two-thirds of prisoners re-offend within two years of leaving prison. If, as a society, we see our prisons as something more than just a holding pen for people who’ve committed a crime and if we want prisons to be a place where people are reformed, then this figure suggests that something is going wrong.

I don’t feel any of that bleeding-heart liberal ‘ooh, they’re victims of society’ pity for the kids who did it. Ultimately, they made a choice – they decided to hurt someone, and being angry, disadvantaged, young, drunk, provoked, stupid or any other excuse doesn’t absolve them. I also think that it’s their responsibility to change. But, I wonder if the prison system could do more to help people not to re-offend and to really alter their behaviour for the future. One person has already lost their life, and I hate the idea that this trial isn’t going to be the end of one sad story, and that it could be the beginning of more.

Sent using BlackBerry?? from Orange

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‘Relationships with brands are now more down to earth & less reverential…for consumers, the practical & pragmatic rule’

 

April 2010 | It has never been more important to turn your brand into a service. Jaded, time-poor, pragmatic consumers yearn for service and care, while the mobile online revolution (it’s finally, truly here!) makes it possible to offer uber-relevant services to consumers anywhere, anytime. Basically, if you’re going to embrace one big consumer trend this year, please let it be BRAND BUTLERS!

???BRAND BUTLERS???: Serving is the new selling

1. What, why and how

While we introduced BRAND BUTLERS a few years ago as a promising, emerging trend, we believe that now is the time to go all out on ‘serving is the new selling’, including this dedicated Trend Briefing. First, a definition:

BRAND BUTLERS | With pragmatic, convenience-loving consumers enjoying instant access to an ever-growing number of supporting services and tools (both offline and online), brands urgently need to hone their ‘butlering skills’*, focusing on assisting consumers to make the most of their daily lives, versus the old model of selling them a lifestyle if not identity.

* For more on what makes a great butler, see this wiki

Here’s why consumers are embracing these BRAND BUTLER-style services:

  • For consumers, time, convenience, control and independence are the new currencies: this need requires B2C brands to turn many of their ‘campaigns’ if not all interactions with their customers into broader services. In short: a shift from ‘broadcasting’ to assisting.
  • Relationships with brands are now more down to earth and less reverential. From individualism to eco-concerns to decreased spending power in developed economies: for consumers, the practical and pragmatic rule.
  • Yet, in uncertain times, there’s also a consumer longing for institutions that truly ‘care‘ (please re-read our GENERATION G briefing), which is more about showing empathy and providing customers with a status fix (please re-read our PERKONOMICS briefing) than being purely practical. This too requires brands to master more service-oriented personae.
  • On top of all of the above, the current mobile online revolution (hey, it took more than a decade of breathless predictions, but mobile internet usage is now finally exploding around the globe) is shifting these consumer expectations even further into the always-on, instant gratification online arena. (please re-read our NOWISM briefing). For brands, this means that there are now endless creative and cost-effective ways to deliver on this need for assistance, for ‘butlers’.
Build a BRAND BUTLER omnipresence

While many brands now offer at least a few stand-alone BRAND BUTLER-esque services (witness the many examples below), very few brands have an integrated (or, dare we say, holistic) BRAND BUTLER strategy in place yet.

That means a major opportunity to be amongst the first to roll out a cohesive suite of services, embodying the essence of your brand. And with brand essence we mean: What are you about as a brand? What themes? What benefits?
Is it ‘connectivity’? Inside information? Convenience? Hope? Health? Speed? Reliability?
So, fine-tune your theme(s), and let them be at the center of any BRAND BUTLER brainstorming.

The resulting, ideal ???BRAND BUTLER OMNIPRESENCE’ would be a mix of (discreetly) being there when customers want you to be there, and pleasantly surprising them with your presence when they least expect it. For simplicity’s sake, this omnipresence can be divided in online and offline activities:

Online

It should come as no surprise that apps, whether for iPhones, Blackberries, or Android devices, offer a quick route to deliver BRAND BUTLER services: offering useful, (semi-) branded content, residing on consumers’ online devices is a marriage made in heaven.

Oh, and you obviously don’t have to develop everything yourself: why not partner (or acquire) one of the many third-party apps already out there. Just one example: L’OREAL recently teamed up with Vanity Fair’s Hollywood app to offer consumers tools to organize their Oscar night voting pools, as well as offering live results and exclusive Vanity Fair content.
So… time to scan the iPhone App Store, Google???s Android Market, and Blackberry’s App World.

Offline

In the ‘real’ world, brands obviously can???t be everywhere all the time. By default, they will be more expensive to execute as well. So ‘offline’ BRAND BUTLER services need to be prioritized by utter relevance and/or surprise.
One popular offline BRAND BUTLER tactic is to establish permanent or pop-up branded spaces and lounges, often tied to a specific event (music festivals!) or a location (airports!) which offer ample opportunity to assist consumers / customers with relevant, on-brand services. And here too, like with apps, partnering is key: no need (or even possibility) to go it all alone in what is now a cooperation-economy, anyway.

In the end, finding the right mix of online and offline BRAND BUTLER services is something you will have to do yourself. To get you started, we have included a number of tips in the opportunities section at the end of this briefing.

Feedback and co-creation

Here’s a nice bonus: BRAND BUTLER services equal interaction, meaning they can provide brands with valuable feedback, metrics and other learning opportunities about what interests, drives and triggers customers. Furthermore, BRAND BUTLERS is a great match with CO-CREATION: who better to ask what additional services they would like than your own customers!?

For the record: What is it not?

  • Simply offering excellent yet tried-and-tested customer service and support functions, or typical online features such as price-lookup or anything facilitating ecommerce activities. While excelling in offering these hygiene factors of course do contribute to an overall ‘feel’ of assistance for customers, we would qualify them as (after) sales support, not ‘butlering’.
  • BRAND BUTLER services typically do not replace top quality products and paid services: they go ???over and above’. In other words, while it would be fantastic if one of your BRAND BUTLER services is so well liked that you can charge money for it, and turn it into your core-offerings, in most cases BRAND BUTLER services can/should only exist because they support your core (and hopefully outstanding) products and services.
  • Last but not least, as BRAND BUTLERS is all about relevance and service, this is not about gimmicks or entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

2. BRAND BUTLER examples

While you can no doubt come up with another dozen, we’ve tried to limit the number of BRAND BUTLER service categories to a manageable eight:

But first... the obvious

Let???s kick off with some examples that you???ve seen, or may be using yourself, and that embody BRAND BUTLER thinking. If you???re not already providing your customers with similar basic services as we speak, you???re in trouble:

  • Mastercard???s ATM Hunter iPhone app allows users to find their nearest ATMs by entering their location or using built-in GPS functionality.
  • Turkish mobile networks Vodafone and Turkcell have developed iPhone apps that allow consumers to find a wide variety of nearby venues and services.
  • In the UK, the AA???s (Automobile Association) Best of Britain app is designed to help users find local hotels, restaurants and attractions during their trips around the country.
We are looking for a London-based Strategist.

Transparency and 'In the know'

So let???s move on to transparency and ???in the know???. This BRAND BUTLER category is all about providing consumers with information that will either lubricate or enrich their lives.

Transparency has to do with giving customers access to vital (process or product) information that a company until now may have used for internal purposes only. (One of our favorite gurus, Jeff Jarvis, recently called this ‘operational transparency’: do check it out here.)

‘In the know’. Not surprisingly, ‘in the know’ services are often offered by brands that in the end are (or want to be) all about lifestyle.

A few examples, from brands like Nike, Beck???s, Nissan, Domino’s, MasterCard and more:

  • Domino’s Pizza Tracker allows US customers to follow the progress of their pizza order from preparation through to delivery via a web interface.
  • Nike???s True City iPhone app aims to give consumers ???insider??? information on six European cities, while also allowing users to share their own tips and delivering exclusive Nike offers and information.
  • The Adidas Urban Art Guide is a free iPhone travel guide listing Berlin’s best graffiti. Users can click on each marked location to retrieve images as well as information about the piece and the artist.
  • Beck’s Gig Finder app helps users to find local music gigs. The app’s map and GPS interface allow users to see where he or she is in relation to the gigs.
  • Smirnoff has teamed up with Time Out to deliver an iPhone app that???s designed to offer users up to date information on London???s nightlife and entertainment.
  • Nissan???s Prove It iPhone app provides maps of 45 European ski resorts, enabling users to track their friends??? locations on the slopes as well as offering guides to the resorts themselves.
  • Mastercard has developed a Priceless Picks app, which allows users to share their favorite places and deals, which are then displayed on an interactive map for other users to browse.
  • Parisian jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels offers a day in Paris, an iPhone app that offers to guide users through ???a poetic ballad in Paris???, discovering romantic venues around the city.
  • An older, offline example: In December 2008, HSBC launched a personalized magazine kiosk at London’s Heathrow Terminal 1, where consumers could choose from a large selection of loose-leaf articles which a staff member would bind into a free personalized magazine.
  • Google labs has developed City Tours, which uses Google Maps to offer a variety of walking tours in cities around the world. The tours also offer practical information such as opening hours.
  • Tiger beer celebrated the Chinese New Year by launching an iPhone app designed to guide users around London???s Chinatown. The augmented reality bar and restaurant guide is accompanied by a ???Tuk Tuk Challenge??? driving game.

Saving money

Now here???s a BRAND BUTLER idea: why not go out of your way to help your customers save money in their daily lives (please note: this is not about saving money on purchases, price comparison, coupons etc: those are part of the sales process). Some innovative examples, from Virgin, Gap, and IKEA:

  • Taxi2 is a cab sharing initiative from Virgin Atlantic. Open to passengers of any airline, users can log on to the Taxi2 site, input their flight details, and the system matches them with suitable cab-sharing companions.
  • Sprize, provided by Gap in and around Vancouver, BC, allows shoppers to register online before they shop, and if an item’s price is reduced within 45 days of purchase, their Sprize account will automatically be credited the difference.
  • Ikea Covoiturage allows the furniture giant???s French customers to arrange car-sharing to and from their stores.

Finding

One of BRAND BUTLERS??? holy grails: helping people find information that is relevant and timely, going above and beyond what is now expected from every corporate site, manual or brochure. Needless to say that anything ???mobile??? wins hands down in this category, as it???s all about being available anywhere, anytime. We???ll let the examples do the talking:

  • The SitOrSquat app, which is offered by toilet paper brand Charmin, allows users to find bathrooms, change tables, disability access and other amenities. The application’s users add content to the database and provide feedback when they’ve used one of the featured toilets.
  • Pet food brand Purina offers a branded application that helps consumers to find ???Petcentric??? locations in their vicinity.
  • Real estate site Zillow???s iPhone app uses the phone???s GPS to provide details of estimated home values, homes for sale, and recently sold homes.
  • The North Face Snow Report app provides weather forecasts, snow reports, driving directions, and maps for global ski resorts, as well as allowing users to tweet about conditions from within the app.

Connectivity

While (too) many B2C brands are setting up their own social networking services, we wanted to include this category??? So just one example:

  • vtravelled, launched by Virgin Atlantic, is a social network aimed at creating a global community of travel lovers. The free service allows members to share travel knowledge, thoughts and photos, and access real time updates about destination events and information.

 

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Health, Nutrition & Exercise

If your brand is about wellness, about healthy lifestyles: good for you, as you will find it impossible to ever run out of BRAND BUTLER ideas, and you will have consumers’ attention for many years to come. Check out examples from NIVEA, Olay, Nestl??, Nike, and others.

  • The Nivea Sun iPhone app is designed to help Brazilians tan safely. The app collects information about the user, suggests the correct SPF to be used on a particular day, and alerts the user when the protection should be reapplied.
  • Olay for You is a branded micro-site offering a two-way dialogue with consumers to help improve their skin. The user is asked a series of questions centered on their lifestyle, appearance, and skincare regime, before offering some advice and a product recommendation.
  • The much-lauded Nike + running system offers an online dashboard for recording exercise data, and includes the ability to set goals, join challenges and make contact with other users.
  • New Balance has released a Total Fit app, which is powered by the online run tracking website MapMyRun. The app allows users to view running routes, exercise history and fitness levels while offering coaching functions and the ability to connect with other runners.
  • Adidas has created a concept Runbase store in Tokyo, which offers showers, locker rooms and weekly workshops and events. Customers also have the opportunity to design their own shoes and rent running gear.

Skills & Advice

Skills, knowledge, manners: they’re the new status symbols, and thus helping consumers acquire those skills and insights (closely linked to your brand essence of course) is a sure win. Learn from examples from Virgin, Tesco, Smirnoff and others.

  • Virgin Atlantic offers an iPhone app, Flying Without Fear, for anxious travelers. Following an introduction by Sir Richard Branson, videos run through the in-flight experience, while users can click on the ‘fear attack’ button for a breathing exercise and other tips.
  • Tesco???s Wine Finder app is capable of recognizing any wine in the retailer???s database from a photo of the bottle. The app also recommends wines based on price, country of origin and accompanying cuisine.
  • Swedish food brand Santa Maria offers an iPhone app that offers grilling tips and advice. The application features recipes, a BBQ handbook and a grilling timer.
  • In 2009, Smirnoff held a series of master-classes for men wanting to become ‘Modern Gentlemen’. Three complimentary classes were delivered in London to a limited number of guests, focusing on classic cocktail making, style consulting and grooming.
  • From September 2009, US based Intelligentsia Coffee began offering customers the opportunity to taste, test and learn about the art behind coffee brewing. Customers can visit the company’s ‘lab’ for lessons in at-home brewing, latte art, milk foaming and espresso tasting.

Eco

What trend these days doesn???t come with an avalanche of eco-examples? Check out what Volkswagen, Fiat, Garmin, HP and others came up with to assist customers in greening their behavior (and sometimes saving some money in the process, too):

  • Created by Fiat, eco:Drive is an application that can be downloaded to USB and transferred to a vehicle???s onboard computer, aiming to improve driving efficiency by measuring the driver’s ability to drive in an eco-friendly manner. The software evaluates the user’s driving style and gives a mark out of 100. Online tutorials subsequently encourage drivers to improve their score, and ultimately reduce their carbon emissions.
  • In March 2009, Galp Energia launched Galpshare, a carpooling platform available throughout Portugal, where commuters can create a profile, specify their daily route and find others heading the same way. Users can also list their musical preferences and interests, helping them find people they’d enjoy sharing a ride with.
  • In 2009, Garmin developed ecoRoute, a downloadable program that determines a route’s eco-friendliness. Users can download the free ecoRoute software update from the Garmin website, and it will determine the environmental cost of a future trip, allowing informed decisions to be made about whether it is better value to take a car or public transport.
  • Chevrolet teamed up with the 2010 SXSW festival to offer the Chevy Volt Recharge Lounge where visitors could enjoy refreshments and recharge their electronic devices. The brand also offered a ‘Catch a Chevy‘ service, which offered festival-goers lifts around Austin. 
  • Launched at the Glastonbury music festival in June 2009, the Orange Power Pump, is a device that charges a mobile phone battery using foot power. Users pump power back into their phones while inflating their mattress, with 60 seconds of pumping equating to 5 minutes of call time.
  • HP’s Planet Partners Program allows consumers to recycle a wide range of products from any manufacturer. HP provides the service for free, along with an online portal for guidance and instructions.

Tools & Amenities

In this category, things get truly practical: all kinds of online & offline tools, spaces and amenities to assist consumers in their search for comfort and problem-solving. Please note that some of the information-based services in this category differ from those mentioned in the ???Finding??? category, by virtue of their ability to deliver something more than just directions.

Let???s start with some ???old??? yet still copy-worthy examples:

  • A few older, yet still copy-worthy examples: In 2008, Swedish clothing brand Elvine launched Creators Inn, offering select creative types a free place to stay in Gothenburg and Stockholm. Working with local independent organizers, Elvine’s aim is to use the room to host artists and creatives visiting Gothenburg at no charge and with no strings attached.
  • In 2007, Dutch Rabobank installed Rabo Lockers at Scheveningen Beach. The lockers, which cost EUR 3 to use, were equipped with a digital lock, so that users didn’t need to keep a key or a ticket.
  • In November 2008, Zurich Insurance installed ‘Help Point Booths’ at London Heathrow and Zurich airports, offering free internet access, charging facilities and other concierge services for travelers, including cleaning materials to deal with spilled coffee, and information about travel destinations.
  • Since 2006, personal care brand Charmin has been offering New Yorkers access to clean and comfortable restrooms in Times Square. The brand opens the free facilities during the festive period each year.
  • To launch Stove Top Quick Cups, Kraft Foods offered warmth and hot food samples at cold Chicago bus stops. In November 2008, Kraft began heating ten bus shelters to give consumers relief from the cold.
  • In 2007, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and Nutricia opened the free Schiphol Babycare Lounge, featuring seven circular “cabins”. Facilities include a changing area, baby baths and a microwave for heating food.
  • US grocery chain Whole Foods Market offers a free recipe app for the iPhone. The recipes include nutritional information, as well as letting the user know what ingredients are on sale in store and also the ability to share their favorite recipes with friends.
  • French retailer FNAC offers an iPhone app that allows users to buy event tickets, maps to find their way to the venue, a fake lighter for concerts, a tool to measure applause levels and a foghorn to support teams during sporting events.
  • Air France/KLM  and Allianz have launched an online safe deposit service in partnership with Mondial Assistance. Allianz Protect enables users to save and retrieve their electronic travel documents as well as to authorize a designated person to access them in case of emergency. Unfortunately, the airline and the insurance company charge passengers for the service, something we wouldn’t recommend for most BRAND BUTLER services. Making them complimentary and thus potentially viral ensure a branding/service focus (in addition to one’s core product) versus an additional revenue angle.
  • In 2009, the US Postal Service launched an online augmented reality application, the Virtual Box Simulator, which allows customers to check the size of objects against USPS standard parcel sizes.
  • FedEx launched a service in December 2009 called SenseAware that tracks and monitors the conditions of packages. A small device equipped with a light sensor, accelerometer, thermometer, cellular and GPS radios is inserted into packages to ensure sensitive shipments arrive in the correct condition.
  • The BMW M Power Meter app uses the iPhone???s accelerometer to measure speed and acceleration, providing performance graphs with a variety of statistical data.
  • The Zipcar iPhone app allows members of the car-sharing service to find, reserve and unlock vehicles using their mobile device.
  • AAMCO’s iGAAUGE app provides troubleshooting and car repair information, nearby fuel and traffic information, maintenance and service schedules, and special offers from AAMCO.
  • ColorSnap is a free iPhone app from US paint brand Sherwin-Williams that allows consumers to match the color of a photo taken on their iPhone with over 1,500 colors listed in the Sherwin-Williams database.
  • The British Gas iPhone app allows consumers to regularly record and submit their gas and electricity meter readings, increasing the accuracy of their energy bills.
  • 3M???s Airport Privacy Havens aim to create peaceful zones in major American airports, giving business travelers privacy during important phone calls, and hiding their computer screens from the eyes of passers-by.
  • A range of insurance firms have developed apps that make it easier for consumers to record incidents and file claims using their mobile devices. State Farm???s iPhone app lets users look up policy information, note accident details and submit claims, while Geico???s app lets drivers take photos, make notes and record the details of other parties involved in any incident.

Opportunities

Don’t be fooled: despite its perhaps somewhat tactical feel, BRAND BUTLERS is about turning marketing into a service, and thus it is one of the most important branding trends currently out there.

Equally important: Anything that delivers on consumers??? wants the way that BRAND BUTLERS does is something you want to run with today. No budget? Just kill a number of (traditional) advertising/marketing activities to free up some capital, and/or give priority to the online part of your BRAND BUTLER omnipresence (apps!), which is more about creativity than about drowning in money.

A hands-on start would be to establish the themes your brand is about, and dream up an integrated ‘suite’ of BRAND BUTLER services, both online and offline. Use the eight categories above (Transparency and ‘In the know’, Saving money, Finding, Connectivity, Health, Nutrition & Exercise, Skills & Advice, Eco, and Tools & Amenities). Obviously, we hope you will add a few categories of your own as well.

On a related note: when plotting your BRAND BUTLER OMNIPRESENCE, many of your ideas will probably revolve around existing customers. Either because they’re linked to a purchased product or service, or because they’re a distinctive perk. However, there’s a huge win in services that are open to non-customers, too. This is where BRAND BUTLERS truly replaces the old broadcasting / advertising model.

Oh, and if you’re at an agency: be the first to establish a dedicated, globally acclaimed BRAND BUTLER department, agency or consulting firm.

On our end, we will bring you another Trend Briefing on Monday 3 May. At your service 😉

 

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There are some great ideas and case studies in this…

How much do I hate my new passport photo?

Img00156-20100325-1811

Ooh, about this much…

Usually I can just laugh at a bad photo of me – but not this time. I don’t think I’m particularly vain, but the prospect of being stuck with that photo was just depressing.

There’s something really final about your passport photo – you have to carry it around and show it to people for ten whole years, as proof that you are who you say you are. They don’t make it easy for you to look OK in your passport photo either. You’re not allowed to wear glasses, have any hair on your face, cover your ears, smile or tilt your head – which are all things I do to cover up the fact that I look old and tired, have huge ears, fat cheeks and wonky eyes.

I’m going to give into my vanity and try again tomorrow – with a shed load of make-up on.

Sent using BlackBerry?? from Orange

‘Helpful’ suggestions for estate agents online

We’ve only been house hunting for a couple of weeks, but I’m already sick of it. It’s not because of a lack of decent properties, or giving up Saturdays to traipse round Brighton on viewings, or even the idea of signing my life away on a property that’s worth more money than I can properly understand. The problem is estate agents.

A lot of the ones I’ve had contact with so far have been shit, particularly when it comes to their online activity. They’re shit at a lot of other stuff too, but those areas aren’t my areas of expertise.

So if you’re an estate agent, here are five things you can do to be a bit less shit online.

1. Don’t lie to me, I know how to use the internet.
Don’t lie to me – e.g. ‘We’ve had a lot of interest in this one’ or ‘It’s a great area’ or ‘The previous owners have been here for some time’ – because a quick search online can catch you out – for example by revealing how long the property’s been on the market for, crime stats, social demographics and even annoying neighbours in an area (www.UpMyStreet.com and www.FixMyStreet.com) and when and for how much it was last sold (www.Zoopla.com).

2. Put everything online.
Put all the info that you possibly can online – including as many photos as possible, even if it does reveal that somewhere is a fetid, dank hole. I turned up at one place last week that was flooded. (They didn’t think to mention it beforehand.) That way neither of our time will be wasted with a pointless viewing, and also I won’t lose my faith that you have some integrity. Also include proper measurements, in feet and inches, and a detailed description. -Information about why the owner is moving and how long they’ve been there is a nice bonus too. All this will improve your ‘conversion’, because the people you show round will really be interested, rather than going in blind.

3. Sort your communication out.
Don’t send me multiple bloody emails containing the same message, because eventually I’ll just delete them all, without reading them. Also, please don’t text and call me as well as sending an email (I had 9 texts, 9 emails and 3 calls from one agent in the space of 48 hours last week). Why not ask which method I’d prefer?

4. Check your links.
Send me another dead link or lead me down another dead end on your stupid website and I’ll scream.

5. Optimise your website and property listings for search.
Optimise your website and property listings for search, because if you don’t someone else is stealing your potential traffic, and it’s probably a site you either pay to advertise on, or pay for a referral. A really amazing example is Fox and Sons – they’ve got a few different branches in Brighton, but if you Google them, nothing comes up. This is because they’re part of a bigger group, called Sequence. All their listings are on the main Sequence site, which doesn’t seem to have taken it into account that people know the name of their local branch, and might not know the name of the parent company.

Rant over (for now anyway). Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Could burning coal underground take Clean Coal Ltd in too deep? | Fred Pearce | Environment | guardian.co.uk

USG underground coal gasification process

An overview of the underground coal gasification process from Clean Coal Ltd. Graphic: cleancoalucg.com

King coal is ready for a British comeback in a form that sounds more like medieval hellfire than an energy source for the 21st century. But could it be green? The stakes are high ??? not least because the company behind the plan has captured the high ground in environmental marketing by calling itself Clean Coal Limited.

The idea is this. Forget about mining coal, and instead burn entire coal seams in situ underground, then tap the gases that the fires give off to put in gas turbines and generate electricity. Unknown to most residents, the company has already obtained licences from the UK Coal Authority to do this at five sites round Britain’s coast.

Seismic surveys could be finished within two years and the company says the first commercial scheme could be in operation by 2014. The combined coal reserves for the five trial sites alone are enough to supply Britain with coal for more than a decade.

Clean Coal is a small start-up company of engineers, geologists and venture capitalists, that has big plans for selling its expertise round the world. Last week, it unveiled plans to burn coal within 500m off the shore of the north Norfolk area of outstanding natural beauty.

But its chief executive, Catherine Bond, told the Guardian that the first project is likely to be in Swansea Bay “because we know the geology best”. The other three sites are off Grimsby, Sunderland, and under the Solway Firth in Scotland.

Coal “gasification” is an old idea. Until half a century ago, Britain ran on “coal gas” manufactured at local gas works. What is new is cutting out the coal mining stage and doing the gasification underground.

In principle it is simple. You sink a borehole to the coal seam and insert a firelighter and oxygen to keep the fire going. The fire generates carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen. You sink another borehole to extract the gases. There are technical issues. But trials on coalfields in Queensland, Australia suggest the technology may be ready to go.

And Bond says she has assembled “the top people in the northern hemisphere. Only the Queensland people are ahead of us. They are proving the technology.”

But how green is it? Gasification has one advantage over burning coal directly. By converting coal to methane, you reduce the carbon dioxide emissions at the power station by more than half.

The problem is that methane is not the only gas to emerge from underground. While the engineering trick is to manage the fires to maximise methane production, there will inevitably be a lot of CO2 produced by the fires as well.

So what do you do with it? Bond says they plan to capture the CO2 at the wellhead and find a safe home for it ??? carbon capture and storage (CCS). “Because of our name, we can’t do any project without a CCS solution,” she says. But the company’s website simply says its technology will “allow” carbon capture to be included at the well head. So how firm is the commitment?

The aim is to pour as much of the CO2 as possible right back into the underground cavity created by burning the coal seam. At the depth planned for burning, below 700m, the gas will form a gel and take up less space. Even so, Bond says: “There is only room for about 30% of the CO2.”

The remaining 70% will have to find another home. “We are talking to people about what the options are, but it will be difficult,” she says. “We want to be clean. But we may not be capturing all the CO2 from day one.” Bond agrees that CCS “is not done on a commercial basis anywhere in the world.”

And, as I have reported here before, most people believe any kind of commercial system for CO2 burial is at least a decade away. “I am not going to say a CCS solution is simple and straightforward,” says Bond. “But when we do it, we may well be the first.”

The problem is that underground coal gasification is emerging as another technology aimed at keeping alive the vast and climatically dangerous coal industry on a prospectus of highly uncertain promises about possible future carbon capture and storage.

The stakes are immensely high. According to the International Energy Agency, unexploitable coal reserves deep in the Earth amount to around 5 trillion tonnes, five times the reserves currently recoverable with mining. Underground coal gasification could make much of that exploitable.

So is this clean coal or greenwash? Bond and her colleagues sound serious. But even if they are true to their word, it is far from clear how soon CCS can be used to bury their unwanted subterranean gases. One thing is for sure. The name of the company ensures its track record will be viewed with specially close scrutiny.