Is the solar industry marketing itself successfully? Are solar firms reaching consumers? Is branding important? Can the average consumer name even one solar panel manufacturer?

These were some of the questions that moderator Scott Clavenna, CEO of Greentech Media, posed to two solar equipment firms and two downstream solar companies at last week's (great) Solar Summit in Phoenix.

In a 2011 survey performed by San Jose State University in cooperation with Solartech, 63 percent of respondents could not accurately recall any solar company that provides solar systems for residential use. Those that could name names came up with SunPower and SolarCity. Only 11 percent of the survey's respondents believed solar to be affordable, while 82 percent perceived solar as expensive.

Helena Kimball, head of marketing at Yingli Solar (YGE)  spoke for the company, which is the world's largest solar supplier. Yingli didn't enter the U.S. market until 2009 and created a large effort to build brand recognition with its sponsorship of the World Cup. In Kimball's words, "It was the first time that solar was brought mainstream." Yet Yingli's own global brand survey indicated that half of U.S. consumers cannot identify a single solar module vendor.

The company was the first Chinese firm to sponsor the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and in doing so, it reached out to millions in the European market. This type of sponsorship deal does not come cheap, but it must have been worth it, as Yingli is sponsoring the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

SolarCity's Jonathan Bass spoke of the company's recent "Steal our contracts" campaign, in which the solar financier and installer made its solar service agreement available for download earlier this year. Bass said that 3,000 people have read and downloaded those contracts. He noted that demographics are changing in solar with much faster growth in low- and middle-incomes and that "solar had an image problem with Wall Street." He added that the name of the panel vendor "doesn't come up very often."
Danny Kennedy of Sungevity said the fact that "GTM [hosted] this panel" was a sign of progress for marketing solar. He added that his goal is to lower customer acquisition costs (CAC) and keep the firm's referral momentum going. "At the end of the day, solar is not about the technology; it's about the customer," said the Sungevity founder. He notes that Australia went from 900 PV roofs to 300,000 rooftops in six years -- and that scaling was all due to word-of-mouth.

Aesthetics are more important to the customer than brand, according to Kennedy.

"We are a service business," said Kennedy, adding, "Southwest isn't an airline; it's a service business. That's how we have to think about solar." He added, "We hired the CMO at LinkedIn" in order to find out what it would require to take Sungevity viral.  

Misty Benham, Head of Operations and Marketing at REC Americas, notes that business-to-business marketing is changing as the industry evolves. She asserts that partnerships are more important than print ads. That's one of the drivers for REC bringing installers to its vertically integrated facilities to show them what goes into a module. With that, she said, "Our partners become evangelists," adding, "In an era of lower margins, our marketing is more focused on helping our partners promote themselves."

(We've reported on some recent good and bad solar ad campaigns here.)

In an earlier interview with SolarCity's Jonathan Bass, he said, "Advertising is more effective when it can educate, and solar has an education problem. Everyone knows that solar power is better for the environment than fossil fuels, but most people don't realize that it can be less expensive than electricity from the grid. The differences between various panels are too subtle to matter to most consumers, so in our advertising we focus on what consumers care about most: dollars and cents."

Here's the video: