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Make Brand, Not War – Free Trade in the Solar Industry.

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Make Brand, Not War – Free Trade in the Solar Industry.

Make Brand, Not War – Free Trade in the Solar Industry.

Henry Gentenaar makes the marketing case for international trade peace in solar energy, suggesting that a company should invest in building its brand for both defense and offense, and that, by extension, American solar panel manufacturers should invest in branding, not protectionism.

Seldom do international trade disputes have such cool sounding names as the recently begun ‘Solar War’ between the U.S. and China over what the U.S. alleges as ‘dumping’ of solar panels into the U.S. market by the Chinese.  With a title straight out of a Hollywood Sci-Fi movie, this most recent and misguided trade war is spreading and, even as I write, a new wind power front is opening. One day my son may ask what I did during the ‘Renewable Energy Wars’.

In the midst of all this is something I’ve long thought would go far in fortifying the market position of American solar panel companies, both in domestic competition for retail customers and in the struggle for dominance on the global stage.

That ‘something’ is a powerful force that can be used for both good and evil. It is difficult to attain, can be ephemeral yet constant, fragile yet dependable, and used as both weapon and shield. Some are incapable of seeing its powers, yet most are influenced by it, and it is very, very highly prized. In the end, it is so simple it can be summed up in one word: Brand.

Think Differentiated
In today’s ultra-competitive, globally flat business environment, all marketers (industrial marketers included) must – MUST —  achieve some degree of differentiation of their products in order to avoid  being viewed as commodities or have their companies be viewed as faceless non-entities. This is especially true for companies that have elected to make and sell products considered actually to be commodities.

Building a robust brand is critical because strong brands command and sustain higher margins than weaker brands. And brand strength quite literally may be the only thing keeping a customer from exercising his inalienable right to ‘substitution’ (the purchase of a competing product if your product is unavailable or indistinguishable), especially if your product looks like and performs like everyone else’s or your company is considered by the market to be equivalent to your competitor’s because nothing makes it stand out; your the company has no ‘buzz’ as those of us in the ‘biz say.

Without a brand to communicate quality or personality, U.S. companies had nothing with which to connect to their customers or market and, in turn, buttress their overall business. Then, the competition struck with very, very cheap products.

Paradigm Time
The ultimate goal of any company should be to be #1 in what it does, and to set world-changing goals that it shouts out from the mountaintop. To become the ‘#1 solar panel manufacturer’ and ‘change the world’ are laudable objectives for any group of people seeking to do something new and exciting. Establishing big vision goals is the first step in creating a new Brand Paradigm.

But challenge exists. So, what are the hurdles a company must overcome on its way to creating a new brand paradigm for itself?

First: Competition (obviously). For solar panel manufacturers, competition includes other panel makers, but also companies that make their fortunes selling wasteful and toxic products (coal energy companies, natural gas energy, electric utilities, and others). The strategy should be to trip them up, tie them up, and move beyond them. To do so requires a mix of both offense and defense, and some off-field activity, but it can be done, and has been done, many times in history. The world doesn’t give disruptive entrants a free pass, but it does let them ride the bus…eventually.

Second: Ignorance. People are unaware of how dirty energy production is, how tenuous our current grid-based system is, and how energy-at-risk our nation is. They assume electrons arrive magically in their home to power their electronics, and they’d rather not know how it got there…as long as it is cheap. People need to be educated and informed. It costs money, but there are many, many ways to do it and do it dollar-wisely.

Third: Invisibility. When I was a wee marketer, the greatest lesson taught to me by an early mentor was to assume that no one knows who I (my product or company or brand) am. No matter how much you think you’re ‘marketing’, you’re not doing enough, and for every person who you think has heard of you, many, many more have no idea who you are.

I’ve attended myriad solar and renewable energy conventions, trade shows, finance forums, salons and the like, and they can be fun, informative, and constructive. But what we all tend to forget is that we are amongst our own, singing in the choir and preaching to it, and ‘drinking our own Kool Aid,’ as it were. It’s easy to forget that message and sound of the choir travel just so far.

In business, invisibility is not a superpower. It’s an affliction. The only way to cure it – and avoid ugly, protectionist battles – is to brand.

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