Paula Mints

Job title:
Principal Analyst for Navigant Consulting’s PV Service Market Research Program

Areas of expertise:
Photovoltaic (PV) technologies and markets

Paula Mints is the principal analyst for Navigant’s PV Service Market Research Program, and executive editor of the Solar Outlook Newsletter, and is widely recognised as an industry expert on photovoltaic (PV) technologies and markets. She has 10 years of experience providing research products and insight about the photovoltaic industry.

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Look! Up on the roof! Is it a technology? Is it a commodity? Is it an appliance? Yes, it’s all of these things! It’s a Solar Panel!

Caught ya – this is really an article about branding. You know,  that marketing function that turns needs into wants and functions into attributes – or, scares the heck out of you and then turns around and offers you a safe place to land while it makes you love being scared.

The function of a car is to get you from point A to point B, that is, transportation. In general, however, people buy cars to transport them in a more, existential way. Brands such as Mercedes, BMW – these are expressions of self – and they go right to the gut of how the consumer sees his or herself. Hybrid or electric cars shuffle a good-for-the-environment thing into the mix, and this works with Toyotas, Hondas and others, but the all-electric Tesla, now, this is an expensive sexy car that says “I can afford it and see how good I look in it.”

Solar systems have, historically, been more difficult to brand – first, a solar system is an expensive item (in some cases, and in the past, more expensive than a car), second, the industry has yet to make the rectangle alluring, and third, energy consumers have been trained to rent electricity – finally, electricity is a commodity.  It is not just education that is needed here; it is a completely different conversation.


  • The first automobiles sold freedom
  • A dishwasher just doesn’t sell clean dishes, it sells freedom from washing the dishes
  • A clothes dryer sells more than dry clothes, it sells freedom from the labor of hanging them on the line
  • Owning a telephone sold communication and cell phones sell instant access to that communication
  • A solar system is freedom (at a high price) from the volatile price of electricity and from the control exercised by utilities over this electricity (which is a need, not a want).

Yet, branding in the solar industry has proved elusive thus far. Even GE was not able to tap into its appliance brand – basically, GE in the house, GE on the roof. Part of this is because the industry has been talking to itself, and not to the end user.

There are some great ads in Home Power and Photon magazines – but end users are reading Time, the New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, and Newsweek – when they pick up print media at all these days – or they are watching TV.

SunPower’s residential campaign where customers talk about why they chose SunPower is old fashioned awareness campaigning. Here is the point … .when you buy Kleenex you are buying a brand name that has transferred itself to all other tissue products. Kleenex is ubiquitous with tissue. It’s a fairly simple concept … and quite possibly, the residential consumer WILL think of SunPower when they think of solar systems (particularly in California with the current commercials on the radio and TV).

The electricity conversation needs to change – and market stimulating feed-in tariffs do not change the conversation while tending to spawn multi-megawatt installations, not DG (distributed generation). Yes, incentives will be needed for some time, and an answer to the financing piece remains just out of reach, but in the end, solar needs to decide on the idea it is selling, the concept, the want, the image and go for it – to the right audience, of course.

Electricity is not particularly sexy to most people, nor is a solar panel, an inverter, or any of the other hardware – freedom, now, that is sexy. Helping consumers realize that they are not free and offering them the road (albeit an expensive road) to freedom, now, that is sexy. Throw in some financing and, bam, it’s Henry Ford and the automobile all over again (and yes, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, Robert Anderson, Karl Friedrich Benz, Gottlieb Wilheim Daimler, George Baldwin Selden, Charles Edgar Duryea and others for their commitment and sacrifice to invention).

Henry Ford, by the way, gets credit for mass production (that pesky affordability problem that solar still has) and marketing the freedom of the open road.

So, branding, branding, branding – the industry is great at the technology side of things, but the end user of a residential or small commercial system is not buying CIGS, CdTe, c-Si or a-Si – they are buying an idea and they want to be excited about it. So, excite them. Watch any episode of Mad Men for help doing so.

Posted 20/08/2010 by Paula Mints

Tagged under: solar , panel , pv , energy , power , renewable

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