When Yingli Solar first sponsored football’s World Cup in 2010, the most widely watched sporting event in the entire world, it seemed to be an odd — and expensive — marketing move for a solar PV manufacturer. We all know that solar consumers rarely choose the solar panel brand, installers do. So why would Yingli spend the same amount of money as global brand powerhouses Budweiser and McDonald’s to reach consumers that don’t directly buy its product?
I heard the answer to this question and a lot more about Yingli’s global and US solar panel marketing strategies when I sat down with Helena Kimball, Head of Marketing at Yingli Green Energy Americas at SPI 13.
So, why spend premium solar capital dollars on marketing?
“We felt that if we could get to a global stage and really present Yingli in the same way as Coca-Cola, Adidas, or other brands, that we could not only elevate ourselves, but also the solar brand in general.” Kimball said. “That’s why when you see the LED digital display boards when you’re watching the game on TV, it doesn’t just say ‘Yingli,’ it says Yingli Solar.”
At the time, I recognized the solar advocacy aspects of that campaign, and Kimball said I wasn’t alone. After the 2010 World Cup, she said that many solar industry people complimented Yingli on bringing global attention to solar, not just Yingli.
Since then, other solar PV manufacturers have followed with high profile sports sponsorships. Most notable in the U.S., Canadian Solar sponsored the San Francisco Giants during the 2010 World Series winning season, and Hanwah Solar sponsored the Giants in 2012 when it won the Series again.
Continuing their global brand recognition strategy, Yingli will once again sponsor the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This time they hope to specifically catch the attention of emerging solar markets in South America, as well as Asia where Japan and China are taking up the slack from the waning European solar market.
“By having the World Cup as a global platform, we think that it’s really a ‘pull’ versus ‘push’ [marketing] strategy,” said Kimball. “When you have consumers in these strategic markets begin to recognize the Yingli brand, in time it’s going to make the difference.”
Monetizing Solar Marketing with Soccer in the U.S.
While soccer is a huge sport around the world, it’s not the number one sport in the United States. That would be American “gridiron” football, and so you might think that Yingli would pivot, sponsoring gridiron football, basketball, or baseball. Kimball says that the company considered those sports…until its solar market research revealed that soccer was still the best pick for solar. Here’s why:
As a result, Yingli doubled down on soccer as a marketing vehicle for its brand and for reaching directly to consumers. The company became the “Official Renewable Energy Partner” of U.S. Soccer, including the U.S. Men’s, Women’s and Youth National Teams. Additionally, Yingli signed U.S. Women's National Soccer star Mia Hamm to be a national brand ambassador. A solar advocate who has already gone solar, Hamm will participate in videos and radio spots, and also appear in other marketing materials that target residential homeowners who not only attend the pro-games, but may also have kids playing in U.S. Soccer’s youth tournaments.
All of this is great, but here’s where I think Yingli is being very creative and showing how a solar PV manufacturer can have the consumer choose a solar panel:
As part of its U.S. Soccer sponsorship, Yingli and its local installer partners are able to attend youth soccer tournaments in key markets. In addition to advertising, Yingli brand ambassadors are able to approach spectators (parents) with iPads and give rough solar quotes, as well as set home appointments. If the lead converts to a sale, then that homeowner’s array is contracted to be Yingli modules.
“We don’t believe in competing with our customers downstream,” said Kimball. “We just want to partner with them. So we thought, what can we do on the marketing side to drive value and see if we can increase sales through sponsorship?”
Yingli tested several approaches, including having a branded booth at the soccer tournaments, but the roaming brand ambassador tactic showed itself to be the most effective.
“That person-to-person dialog with the residential customer is extremely important,” Kimball said. “We knew that in order to monetize this sponsorship from a brand perspective, you have to have those conversations.”
She added that truly interacting and working with their installers on the campaign is also key. “We’re always learning that in order to have that strong brand experience, you have to partner all the way down the value chain. So we don’t just hand a lead to an installer.”
But does Yingli expect that this expensive investment in World Cup brand recognition will actually lead to a consumer asking for Yingli—or any brand? Yes, says Kimball, in the long run. She says, “When you’re making a 25 year investment, you should know the products that are going into your home, in the same that you should ask for a Kenmore fridge or something like that. This takes time, but ultimately, we want people to associate Yingli with quality. “
In addition to its global and local football campaigns, Yingli is also beginning to invest in having a global social media presence. They’ve hired a new global digital marketing manager, started a blog, and beginning to actively use Twitter and Facebook, plus online contest marketing.
Kimball says that the company’s large marketing investment is a long term strategy that will pay off as distributed generation continues to increase market share, especially in the U.S.
“We feel that with pricing stabilized and the industry undergoing consolidation, that it’s a good time to put a stake in the ground,” she said. “A lot of companies aren’t willing to make that marketing investment right now, and we understand that. But we’re in this for the long haul, so while it might not seem to be the best time, long term, it is.”
Bottom line, Yingli’s World Cup strategy may be expensive, but it’s bold, it helps the entire solar industry, and definitely…UnThinks Solar.
Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” is a solar marketing and communications consultant and the author of Solar Fred's Guide to Solar Guerrilla Marketing. Sign up for the Solar Fred Marketing Newsletter, or contact him through UnThink Solar. You can also follow @SolarFred on Twitter.
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