Rare Earth (not the band) Worries Mount

The EU demanded that China loosen its sales of rare earth materials after the World Trade Organization (WTO) upheld a ruling that Beijing’s policies to limit raw material exports violated international trade rules.  The reason a case was even filed is because countries argues that the higher prices their manufacturers were forced to pay for goods such as bauxite, coke and zinc put them at a disadvantage across a wide swath of industries – from steel to batteries, chemicals and ceramics.  The move comes as Beijing has sought to impose similar restrictions on the export of rare earths, a category of 17 elements that are found in array of high-tech products, including solar panels, wind turbines and mobile phones.  China accounts for more than 90 percent of global production of such materials.  that dominance has unnerved its trading partners – particularly since Beijing has tightened supplies repeatedly over the past four years.

OK, so here’s the first question – what does that have to do with marketing?  My answer is always the same – it has to do with the ability of the advertising industry to identify trends.

Mobile is the fastest growing advertising market.  More and more agencies are building rich content and promotions to take advantage of features like multi-touch.  The price of phones continues to drop and their popularity continues to increase – which is pretty simple economics.  But what if cost were to increase?  Econ 101 tells us that demand will drop.  If demand drops, then companies that did nothing but promote themselves as mobile experts (specifically a niche within mobile) will be scrambling to keep up.  Don’t believe me?  How many companies got washed away when Palm was wiped out?  Apple destroyed Palm because of their new technology – not just because they had a cooler product, but I digress.  The point is that agencies (like, in my opinion, bloomfield knoble) who understand the importance of technology and have the ability to incorporate new technologies into marketing campaigns will outlast those that are deeply specialized.

Having expertise in different areas, and understanding how those different areas can come together to deliver a message that is timely and on-target is vital to success.

So, second question – what’s this about rare earths?

Discovery News is catching up to an article I wrote in 2010.  They write that a world in need of faster computers, smarter phones and more energy-efficient light bulbs threatens to strain the small supply of rare metals used by the global electronics industry, but limits on the production of such rare metals mean the supply can’t easily expand to meet the demand for innovation in both consumer electronics and clean technologies.

Scarce metals such as gallium, indium and selenium — known as “hitchhiker” metals — come only as byproducts of mining major industrial metals such as aluminum, copper and zinc. That makes it hard to simply boost production of hitchhiker metals whenever industries face a shortage, even if the metals have become critical components of everything from high-performance computers to solar panels.  “With respect to metals that are hitchhikers, a higher price isn’t going to lead to much more production,” said Robert Ayres, a physicist and economist based at the international business school INSEAD in France. “And therefore it’s much more important to think in terms of conservation, recycling and substitution.”  That sobering message was delivered by Ayres at a Royal Society discussion meeting held in London Jan. 30.

Final question – why?  Well, two answers, really.  The first is what we can do about rare earths.  Ayres suggests both governments and industries to come up with a standard recycling process that could reuse rare metals.  “You produce something, you use it, but you don’t just toss it in a landfill; it goes to another stage and another, and eventually the rare materials are recovered,” Ayres told InnovationNewsDaily. “At present, hardly any are recovered.”

Take gallium as an example. Gallium is a small byproduct of mining bauxite and zinc, but it has become a critical component for technologies such as lasers, energy-efficient LED lighting and solar panels. The metal has also become a replacement for silicon in faster microchips powering the latest generation of smart phones.  U.S. demand for gallium relied upon $66 million of overseas imports in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And just one company, in Utah, recovered and refined gallium from scrap metal and impure gallium metal.  Indium has become a crucial ingredient in the liquid crystal displays for smart phones and in some types of solar panels. A third hitchhiker metal, selenium, also forms part of the solar panels containing both gallium and indium.

Ayres worries in particular about rare metal shortages crippling innovation in clean energy technologies such as solar power.  “Tellurium, part of the lowest-cost photovoltaic material, is only available from copper refineries,” Ayres pointed out. “And so the quantity available in the world isn’t anywhere near enough to satisfy the potential demand for thin-film photovoltaic surfaces (solar panels).”

The second part of the answer is what bloomfield knoble has to offer.  We understand the concepts of rare earths, the technologies they support and the importance of the industry.  We plan to leverage this expertise into a strategic marketing campaign.  Our goal is to offer our services to Recapture Metals, Inc. to help them increase awareness, position their brand within the marketplace and increase usage to generate more sales.  I guess maybe trying to land a new client is a better answer on what this post has to do with marketing.

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