Archive for November, 2009
Originally posted on EnergyBranding
Walking across the floor at Solar Power International conference and expo in Anaheim, it was easy to imagine stroll through a Turkish market. Instead of the visual whirl of textiles and scent of exotic fragrances, the air was abuzz with the earnest pitch of a solar vendors, about 900 of them. Welcome to the great solar bazaar.
The territory is solar and there are thousands of companies scrambling to stake a claim. An overpowering whirl of sound-alike solar names – just get ’sun’ or ’sol’ in there, is reminiscent of the Internet bubble when it was just enough to have dot com in your name, never mind the business model. This is clearly an industry in the “tornado” as Geoffrey Moore characterized it in “Crossing the chasm”. It is a dynamic phase in the technology adoption lifecycle, and solar is a technology to produce electricity. In this phase, the branding imperative is simply volume, getting the name out there and building awareness. It’s all about the technology still. Incremental increases in solar panel efficiency are claimed as major differentiators. The collective imperative is cost reduction in pursuit of the holy grail of grid parity – and the inevitable rush towards commoditization, and then oblivion for most.
The great solar shakeout is surely at hand.
It’s been a seminal year economically for the entire industry. The housing bust and the credit crunch have put tremendous pressure on manufacturers worldwide to cut costs. The stage is set for a leaner, meaner industry. Very few startups will be around in three years. Technology innovation will not save them.
Another distinguishing feature of Moore’s Tornado is the emergence of categories and deep segments. Companies with powerful brands move in to dominate those categories with presence and scale. In the case of the Internet the category winners are Cisco (networking), Google (search),Oracle (RDBMS), SAP (ERP), Microsoft (software). Brand becomes the great differentiator built on a superior end user experience. Technology becomes product features.
In the solar energy category chain the race is still wide open. At B2C end of the spectrum several strong regional/national brands will emerge that forge a strong bond with residential/commercial customers based on consultation, service and trust. Think of the consolidation of the telecommunications industry. Technology will be a product in a specifier’s catalog. At the B2B end Applied Materials already has a strong awareness and respect and also has a major commitment to a future in solar. The challenge for the Applied’s, Sharp’s and Kyocera’s is to leverage a brand which is known for one thing into a market that is related, but distinctly different in its customer characteristics.
SunPower is doing an interesting job of building awareness across the entire spectrum of categories, from residential to utility scale, albeit in select markets. In the 2008 annual report the company states: “In today’s economic and competitive environment, brand is becoming an even more important differentiator and a significant competitive advantage.” Fine as far as it goes but awareness, aided or unaided, is not brand building.
Can SunPower’s awareness building be sustained across such a wide industry sweep when other brands begin to dominate narrower categories? The guess is that SunPower will eventually coalesce its business focus and brand building on a narrower category.
Branding, especially in a technology-based industry like solar, is not about generating awareness. It’s a framework for thinking about your reason for being. It’s a way of continuously sensing people’s desires and rapidly delivering compelling value to satisfy those desires. It’s about being constantly on the lookout for ways to connect with people and “go deep” into your relationship with them, and their relationship with you and each other. It’s about new processes, new business models, new ways of thinking, and new ways of interacting.
Forget about trying to differentiate through incremental technological advances. Today’s breakthrough is tomorrow’s commodity. Stay tuned in and connected to the living, breathing marketplace of your audience’s fears, challenges, and aspirations, and build your brand around that.
Alan spoke at the Solar Power International Conference last week on Building Brand Recognition.