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Solar Energy Marketing Expert David Briggs: Solar's Key Challenge Now is to "truly out-compete traditional energy"

on • 6 min. read

David Briggs has long-standing experience in the solar industry, including three years at a cleantech communications firm and three years as Marketing Manager at microinverter manufacturer Enphase Energy. Briggs now works as Director of Marketing at mounting systems provider IronRidge. Recently, Briggs took a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk to us about an important topic for the solar industry: how best to engage and market to your customer base, and ultimately to "truly out-compete traditional energy." We greatly appreciate Briggs' insight-filled responses to our questions.

1. Tell us a bit about your background in marketing renewable energy technology and services? What has your approach been, what specifically has been most effective about it?

I’ve always worked with solar manufacturers, but each one was very different—first with cell and module companies while at Antenna Group, then with the microinverter maker Enphase, and now with IronRidge, a mounting systems company. There’s surprisingly little overlap between these topics.

But despite their differences, I’ve always tried to bring the same philosophy to marketing—be direct and demonstrate a clear impact.

In an industry changing as fast as solar, “new ideas” are a dime a dozen, and “new” is rarely the most important part of any product.

It’s more important to address the product’s impact on the customer. This requires marketers to really understand the customer’s perspective, then reduce and simplify their message until it practically speaks for itself.

2. In his book, "The Thank You Economy:  How Business Must Adapt to Social Media," Gary Vaynerchuk makes the argument that for businesses to succeed in the age of social media, they need to really listen to customers, to establish actual relationships, to "humanize" themselves, to demonstrate that they care.  Do you agree with Vaynerchuk's recommendations? Have you personally used any of this in your marketing work in the renewable energy industry?

Yes, I believe this is essential to every company’s long-term success. But it’s not really a new concept. Vaynerchuk simply shows that social media gives this concept more potency and immediacy than ever before.

Listening to your customers and “humanizing” your company really comes down to empathy. Are you able to connect with your audience and feel what they feel? The more you do, the more your message (and your product) start to reflect it—they become simpler, clearer and more familiar.

And to Vaynerchuk’s point, listening and empathy are also the foundation of a dialog with your customers that can result in product improvements and critical insights for your long-term business roadmap.

The only difference I would point out between Vaynerchuk’s perspective and that of a solar manufacturer is that we cannot build products purely to excite customers; solar products have to perform over a long period of time in harsh environments. This requires all changes to be engineered and tested very, very carefully.

Still, solar customers are like any other—they demand constant improvement. This requires manufacturers to walk a fine line between making advancements and remaining careful. Add to this the extremely competitive manufacturing landscape, and you have all the conditions needed to destroy a company for being sloppy (and we’ve seen it happen in solar many times already).

In short, solar manufacturers must listen to their customers and push themselves to both stay on track and get ahead. Distractions and detours are death.

3. Guy Kawasaki's book, "Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions," also gets at the humanization issue. Kawasaki's view is that the key to selling anything is to "enchant" people. And that, in turn, is all about emotion: a) are you likable?; b) are you trustworthy?; c) do you have a great product/service/idea?  In your marketing work, have you found that Kawasaki's thesis rings true, and if not, how specifically do you see it differently?

I haven’t read his book, but the word “enchant” immediately makes me think of “wow factor.”

All too often, marketers confuse “wow factor” with the thing that initially grabs a customer’s attention. While there are lots of gimmicks that can turn heads, “wow factor” comes from the core of what you do, and customers typically experience it after you’ve got their attention.

For marketers to focus only on getting attention is truly dangerous. It comes off as phony and makes the whole company look shallow.

Good marketing needs to address the entirety of the customer experience, extending beyond “step 1” of the journey to address everything from learning, to purchasing, to using.

An expression I like here is, “The experience is the product.”

4. Do you feel like the clean energy industry is ahead or behind the curve when it comes to creating a powerful, compelling narrative for its products and services? How about in terms of pushing back against the massive, well-funded assault by the fossil fuel industries against solar, wind, etc?

I believe the solar industry is on the verge of becoming a real player in energy.

What got us here were huge leaps forward in understanding our customer and improving our offering to match their needs. Specifically, I’m talking about the emergence of financing to make solar just as convenient and affordable as a utility bill (in the case of distributed generation) or just as profitable and “bankable” as a power plant (in the case of utility-scale).

But, just because we are now in the ballgame doesn’t necessarily mean we are poised to win. The challenge now, in my opinion, is to truly out-compete traditional energy.

A lot of people in solar believe this means being more “cost competitive” than traditional energy, but I think this is too short-sighted. Cost is only half of the equation; “benefit” is the other half.

If we want to start beating traditional energy, we must start solving problems that traditional energy simply can’t address. When we start to offer customers something truly new and remarkable—not just “saving 15% or more” —that’s when things get REALLY interesting.

To provide a concrete example, electric car makers have begun partnering with solar installers to sell both things at once. This synergy makes sense because the customer’s electricity bill will likely be going up, and solar is a great solution to that problem. But, this partnership is also quite limited in scope. It’s just a “lead generation” activity, and there’s no real integration of the two offerings.

Now, if you took the concept a step further, you could combine a company like Better Place with a company like Solar City, and you would be attempting to consolidate two different “energy budgets” (gasoline and electricity) into a single, unified service. Not only does this double the potential market size (in terms of revenue), but it also doubles the number of customer problems you can solve.

This type of integration of technology, service and finance can be taken in countless direction, many of which have the potential to establish fundamentally new paradigms in energy, with a potentially MASSIVE impact.