A fake oil tycoon. The biggest sports event in the world. A Formula One racing team. What do they have in common? They're all part of branding initiatives by solar panel makers seeking to make their names in a fast-growing industry.
The biggest news that heralded the first day of Intersolar North America, a solar-energy trade show and conference in San Francisco July 11-15 that drew more than 20,000 attendees, was a video of Larry Hagman, who played a Texas oilman in the old nighttime soap, Dallas. German solar panel maker SolarWorld managed to lure national media and local bloggers to a press event with the promise that a "former oil tycoon will give a keynote address calling for radical change within the U.S. energy market."
Some reporters thought SolarWorld would produce someone who made a fortune in black gold. In real life. But Hagman showed up instead in the video, which contained the slogan "shine, baby, shine," a solar counterpoint to Sarah Palin's "drill, baby, drill."
In the Company of Giants
The advertising spot was the latest example by solar panel manufacturers trying to raise their profiles in a market that's a lot more crowded than just a few years back. Intersolar says this year's show featured 580 exhibitors compared with 444 last year. These branding efforts target not only consumers but also solar manufacturers' customers -- distributors, project developers and utilities.
Solar companies are also turning to sports events, long popular with tech companies, to get their names out. Samsung raised its profile considerably after it became a sponsor of the 1998 Summer Olympics. Prior to those games, the Korean consumer electronics maker hardly registered with consumers outside of South Korea.
Inside the exhibition hall at Intersolar, Yingli Green Energy's booth boasted of its status as an official sponsor of the just-completed 2010 World Cup (pictured). The Chinese solar panel maker's name and logo appeared alongside McDonald's, Budweiser and other giant global corporate sponsors during the games. Yingli executives were quick to point out that Yingli was the first greentech and Chinese company to be an official World Cup sponsor.
"We are growing fast, and it's important for us to have a global stage to promote our brand," says Jason Liu, vice president of Yingli. The company picked the World Cup because it attracts more viewers than any other sporting event, particularly in Europe, which is the largest solar market, says Helena Kimball, the head of marketing and communications for its American operations.
From Soccer to Football (American Style)
The World Cup organizer charged Yingli less for the sponsorship because it was eager to have a renewable energy company in the lineup, Liu says, who declines to disclose the amount. Some estimates have pegged the amound at $30 million to $50 million, but Kimball says none of the guesses are correct.
The branding campaign has gotten lots of press coverage and made Yingli's name a top search term on Google and Baidu, a Chinese search engine, during the World Cup, Liu says. He adds the he already has heard feedback from the company's customers who say "they are proud to be partners of a World Cup sponsor."
Yingli will be launching a branding campaign with the New York Jets football team, Kimball says. The company plans to install solar panels at the Jets' training facility in New Jersey, and its name and logo will show up in digital billboards at the new stadium the Jets will share with the New York Giants in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Across from Yingli's booth at Intersolar stood Trina Solar's, which played up its sponsorship with the Renault Formula One team by hiring women who milled about the booth in skin-tight outfits with Trina's and Renault's names blazoned on the back of their uniforms.
Trina, another Chinese solar panel maker, also threw a party during Intersolar to celebrate Bastille Day, which commemorates the French Revolution in the late 1700s.
Betting on U.S. Growth
Some solar companies have created more localized branding campaigns. Canadian Solar, for example, targeted the U.S. market with its sponsorship of the San Jose Sharks hockey team during the National Hockey League playoffs earlier this year. The solar company's name appeared on signs at each Sharks' game, and it was mentioned by radio and TV announcers covering the playoffs.
Canadian Solar, which makes solar panels in China, also plans to do something similar with the San Francisco Giants baseball team, says Mike Miskovsky, general manager of Canadian Solar's U.S. division. "It's an effective way for us to increase brand awareness in the U.S.," he says.
It opened a U.S. operation last year, and like many Chinese and European solar manufacturers, it's betting that the U.S. could eventually become the largest solar energy market, a title Germany now holds.
"Pick the Ones That Don't Suck"
Of course, it remains to be seen whether these branding campaigns pay dividends for the manufacturers. Consumers currently don't ask for solar panels made by a particular manufacturers, notes Peter Rive, co-founder and chief operating officer of SolarCity, an installer in California. They rely on their contractors' recommendations instead. "The panel choice is more like, 'Don't pick the ones that suck,'" says Rive. "It's not like, 'Pick the ones that I've heard of.'"
Although consumers don't specify brands, they do recognize the names of some solar panel makers who also happen to be consumer-electronics giants, such as Sharp, Sanyo and Samsung, says Matt Ziskin, a senior director of marketing at SunWize, a California-based distributor and installer of solar panels. If SolarWorld, Yingli, Trina, Canadian Solar and others succeed in their branding strategies, they could one day be as well-known as those household names.
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