For the moment, let’s forget whether or not SolarWorld and its six anonymous co-plaintiffs have a valid claim against the named Chinese solar manufacturers. What I want to discuss here is the marketing and public relations ramifications of SolarWorld’s announcement and share my own Solar Fred insights on whether this was ultimately good or bad for its brand and customers.
First, let’s wind back before the U.S. Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission (USDOC) filings announcement and see how the SolarWorld brand was perceived. My personal evaluation here is not even close to true market research, but I would say that SolarWorld’s pre-announcement brand mojo in the U.S. was pretty good, actually. I say this for several reasons:
So overall, SolarWorld is a positive solar brand that is well respected technically, as well as publicly.
Fast-forward to their internal decision, good or bad, to file the trade dispute. The company has to decide about when to file and announce this filing. SolarWorld decides that the best place and time to do this is at Solar Power International 2011, and here is where I start to publicly disagree with its marketing/PR decisions.
From a PR perspective, yes, sure, they had the major industry press there, all under one roof. Plus, they had SEIA and SEPA reps there, and the whole solar tribe was gathered. For positive solar news, that’s a very powerful venue and time indeed. But for bad or controversial news? Not good, and here’s why:
First of all, as much as SPI is a competitive venue, it’s really about the progress and success of the solar industry, the individual companies and their new products. And while SolarWorld promoted its success and products early in the show, I doubt people remember any of that now. Instead, people will remember the trade complaint brouhaha. So from a marketing perspective, the decision to announce at the show was shortsighted and a waste of marketing dollars. For that reason alone, I would have waited until the week after the show.
Second, with the majority of the industry in one place, it’s a dangerous and unpredictable time for bad or controversial news. The entire industry and press are at parties, and they can talk to each other, listen to influential solar leaders, and have their opinions swayed for — or against — the filing. Personally, I had very little opinion at first until I overheard conversations and talked to some solar installer leaders who were very upset. Thus, combined with shock and alcohol, developers were at parties talking about what this action meant for solar prices and getting financing for their current projects.
Had this been announced after the show, the information stream would have been more contained. Opinions would have been more private and SolarWorld would have had a chance to continue to make its case via the press and directly to customers on its blog, Twitter, press releases, and by phone. So again, I think the decision to announce at the show was shortsighted, allowing the negative ramifications to spread through peers.
On the plus side, SolarWorld’s PR department was prepared with their lawyers, press releases and press conferences, so it wasn’t shoot and ask questions later. Nevertheless, the press conference could have been more contained and managed in a post-show telephone conference instead.
Now, let’s look at the complaint from a solar brand leadership perspective. On the one hand, SolarWorld is presenting itself as a U.S. solar industry jobs crusader, protecting American jobs from reportedly unfair trade practices. It’s already closed one facility, laid off workers, and by gum, they’re not going to take it anymore. On first glance, I think that’s a good narrative. Form a marketing perspective, no problem there. Americans love an underdog and protecting jobs at home.
However, there are several places I think the complaint hurts SolarWorld’s brand, regardless of prior brand mojo, quality, price, or jobs. First, right or wrong, some may see the action as a sign of financial weakness. “They can’t compete on price so they have to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission.”
Second, there’s a risk that installers may resent SolarWorld for upsetting pending solar deals. As one large developer friend told me (paraphrasing), “Finally, the industry was getting predictable and financiers were feeling confident. Now, there’s no more price stability until the USDOC complaint is settled, since there may be a steep tariff imposed retroactively on pending projects. The financiers are going to get spooked. They’re ruining it for everyone.”
Does that mean that customers are going to boycott SolarWorld for their “upsetting the solar apple cart” filing action? It’s possible. On the other hand, SolarWorld might build brand loyalty for their courageous leadership, fighting for fair trade, energy independence and U.S. manufacturing jobs. Perhaps these two mindsets will offset each other, but I don’t think so.
Before SolarWorld’s announcement, I had some very cold business/commodity/price conversations with installers, mostly large integrators. For all of them, price, price, price (followed by bankability) was their most important factor for choosing a PV module. So, if that’s their most important consideration, and SolarWorld’s actions have made closing deals more difficult for them, it’s conceivable that this filing decision will indeed hurt SolarWorld’s brand and customer relationships. (Perhaps this is why SolarWorld's co-plaintiffs remained anonymous.)
That brings me to my final PR/marketing perspective on the SolarWorld, et al filing decision. From a customer service perspective, whom does this action serve? In my marketing head, businesses must always act to serve their customers first. That’s how brand loyalty is built and that's how you have an edge over being a $ per watt commodity.
So how does this action serve SolarWorld’s customers? While I strongly support solar manufacturing jobs in America and energy independence, I have not seen a rationale for how this complaint directly serves or helps SolarWorld’s customers, whose number one concern is, apparently, price. On the contrary, if successful, SolarWorld will only cause solar modules to be more expensive, and in the short term, the company has added uncertainty to their customers’ solar financing.
In a SolarWorld blog post written after SPI, it says that it's protecting U.S. solar energy security and future Chinese price gauging. But this assumes that other solar PV companies in the U.S. will ultimately fail and that other non-Chinese countries manufacturing PV panels will also fail, making America beholden exclusively to China — so that scenario seems unlikely to me.
Once again, I am not saying that SolarWorld’s complaint is legally wrong or right. I will leave that judgment to the USDOC and USITC. My thoughts here are purely from a public relations and marketing perspective, and for the reasons stated above, I think that SolarWorld has made a marketing and PR mistake for itself, and perhaps unintentionally, made a decision that could affect the near term growth of the entire U.S. solar industry.
SolarWorld, I respect you guys for your past solar advocacy and marketing efforts, but I hope that you will step back, UnThink Solar, and find another path.
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