I was driving through San Francisco yesterday, flipping through radio stations, when I heard the word "photon" and out of sheer geekiness, stopped to listen.

It turned out to be an ad for solar panels and, to be honest, the radio spot from SunPower was pretty good. It was well produced, sort of funny, established SunPower's differentiation as the most efficient panel maker, and promoted SunPower's no-money-down solar financing.

All in 60 seconds or so.

This ad was not targeted at installers but reached out directly to consumers.

The question is: Does it work?

Is SunPower trying to get consumers to specify their brand when they speak to an installer? Do consumers care about solar brands? Or are they solely interested in the cheapest possible cost?

According to a spokesperson from solar installer SolarCity, "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."

And here's a problematic data point:

In a 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 Akeena, SunPower, and SolarCity. Akeena is now Westinghouse Solar.

Here's a look at some recent solar advertising and market campaigns:

The Good

Yingli Solar (NYSE:YGE) was the first Chinese company to sponsor the 2010 FIFA World Cup and in doing so, the company smartly 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.

Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL) has become a sponsor of actor/racer Patrick Dempsey's (of Grey’s Anatomy) Dempsey Racing Team. The two organizations have also established a solar charity initiative. My significant other refers to this Dempsey person as her "boyfriend," so I imagine she'd buy a solar panel with his endorsement.

REC Solar got some accidental publicity when the firm's Director of Business Development, Ryan Park, got the "First Impression Rose" on The Bachelorette. I am informed that this is a positive thing. I believe he has since returned to loveless anonymity. 

The Bad

A few year's ago, SolarWorld enlisted famous fictional oil man and fictional genie-owner Larry Hagman to endorse their products. Hagman is, in fact, a solar power owner and advocate, but German love for J.R. Ewing did not seem to translate into brand awareness. Hagman was still on the SolarWorld payroll as of a few months ago.

The Stupid

Solon recently launched a solar marketing campaign recently with the tagline, “Don’t leave the planet to the stupid.”

They have since pulled that ad campaign, perhaps realizing that insulting your potential customers is lousy marketing.
The firm has replaced that sonnet with their new tagline, “Solar does not equal solar,” which is either a German take on a Zen koan or an indication that your marketing communications people are not native English speakers.