How Some Solar PV Companies Define Themselves in an Age of Solar Commoditization

As the price of solar modules drops and new solar companies increase competition and inventory, solar PV seems destined to become a price-per-watt commodity. As these price pressures continue, how will solar PV companies define their brands beyond this commodity status?

That’s the question that was put to several solar module manufacturers during last week’s Solar Power International 2009 in Anaheim. Fittingly, there was no single answer, but all were well aware of the need to define themselves in the competitive marketplace.

SunPower: Brand Recognition and Raising the Bar for Efficiency.

SunPower is investing in consumer brand recognition with a number of advertising campaigns in California markets, in addition to continually investing in raising the bar in efficiency. During SPI 2009, the company announced that NREL had certified a new panel at 20.4% efficiency. In an on-camera interview, Julie Blunden, Vice President of Public Policy and Corporate Communications, underlined that strategy, saying, “When we offer a customer a panel, it is clearly the highest efficiency panel on the market, which means more power off your roof or more power per square acre.” She added that its black rooftop panels create aesthetic added value for residential customers and to the installers who offer them to their customers.

Beyond California, SunPower is also producing consumer targeted on-line videos for its installers.

Evergreen: Low Environmental Impact

In an interview on the SPI tradeshow floor, Evergreen Solar’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Chris Lawson, and Director of Marketing, Ian Gregory, explained that Evergreen is differentiating itself from other module manufacturers with its proprietary string ribbon solar panels. Lawson — and Evergreen’s website — described string ribbon’s benefits as more electricity with less impact on the environment.

“Our wafer technology gives our panel the best environmental credentials of any silicon panel ever, and it will always have that benefit,” said Lawson.

Gregory added that lower pricing is healthy for solar and that competition drives costs down for the consumer. He summed up Evergreen’s strategy this way: “The combination of a low cost technology that’s different than what everyone else has—combined with proven superior field performance—enables us to compete with larger competitors.”

Sharp Solar: Consumer Branding with a Long Track Record

For Sharp Solar, standing out in a crowd of solar companies is relatively easy thanks to its well-established consumer and solar industry awareness. Chris Loncto, Director of Public Relations for Sharp Electronics, said that the company’s consumer electronics reputation and long solar history gives customers confidence.

“Sharp has been in the business of solar for 50 years and has been a manufacturing company for over 100 years. So, we have a very strong base in the market. There are a lot of companies out there that are selling their panels with a 25-year warranty, and yet they’ve only been in business for a year and a half. We think that we have quite an advantage over those companies, in that our customers can be sure that we’ll be there to honor that warranty,” he said.

Loncto also mentioned the company’s national television campaign that highlighted not only its solar business history, but also its Big Brand customers. The message here seems to be that not only are we here to stay, but you can also trust us because of our well-known customers.

Solon: Solar for Long-term Customers

Though a new player in the U.S., Solon is well known in Germany and other parts of the world. Solon’s President and CEO, Olaf Koester, explained that he takes a long-term perspective about the growth of solar—and the Solon brand—in America.

“We certainly have to do more marketing than Sharp has to do or Mitsubishi,” said Koester. “Solon has good quality and is well known in Europe, but not so well known here in the United States.”

To prove the company’s long-term commitment to the U.S., Koester has moved his family to Tucson, where he is building a factory that should go on line in 2010.

In terms of defining Solon beyond being a commodity, Koester said he wasn’t concerned about solar bargain hunters. Although the company has relationships with large integrators, such as SunWize, he believes Solon’s quality, international certifications, and reputation outside of America will appeal to large utilities that do their homework.

“If you’re talking to long-term customers, they really want to look at the details,” he said mentioning Solon’s first large contract with PG&E as an example. “We are here and we are taking the business seriously and we have to let people know that we are ready here in the U.S.” 

One of the ways Solon announced its arrival at SPI 2009 was investing in a large, modern booth, complete with an open espresso bar, private offices and a lounge.  It also gave a huge party Monday night, which was co-sponsored by the City of Berlin.

Solon’s long-term strategy includes educational initiatives and working with integrator partners, as well as some media and advertising. In cased you missed it at the show or in Europe, check out its attention grabbing commercial on you-tube.

Schüco: Investing in a Sustainable Future While Building a U.S. Brand

Schüco is another German based company with a long track record outside the U.S. solar market. Schüco’s product offerings include PV, BIPV as well as solar thermal solutions and energy saving windows.

Attractive and unique products will certainly allow Schüco to charge a premium to the residential and commercial solar customers seeking aesthetics over price. In addition, Tanja Brinks, Marketing Director for Schüco, said that the company is seeking to define itself as a sustainability leader. This 5 minute corporate video is an example of that company message.

Brinks said, ”Solar is about sustainability. It won’t help you to bring in low price and low quality and low efficient panels, and after 10 years, [have to] throw them away. We think that we can convince people to invest in a sustainable future.”  She pointed to Schüco’s new thin-film amorphous silicon panels and large privately financed R&D center in Germany as an example of its “forward thinking” solar company.

Nevertheless, Brinks said it’s premature to have a large-scale marketing campaign. Currently, Schüco is building its installer network. After that, Brinks says that the company plans to invest substantially in U.S. brand awareness. “Why is Schüco so successful in Europe? Because it’s a brand, and now we want to build up this brand in the B to B community with our partners, and to bring it to their customers.”

As a result of this strategy, Schüco will eventually be looking for American brand ambassadors and spokespeople. It has already started this strategy on the PGA Golf tour. Choosing the right brand Ambassador to represent the company is important, said Brinks. “It should be people you’re interested in, believe in and that you trust.”

Of course these strategies are only broad outlines and will likely change, especially as this new solar PV market evolves in 2010 and beyond.

Tor Valenza aka “Solar Fred” is a solar marketing blogger on and partner in solar referral service,

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