Why Aren’t There Solar Panels on Every Home in America?
The demand for products to fight climate change is strong and growing, but solar energy has stayed in the shadows
By Gregory Cala
The indifference consumers have for home solar energy panels is nothing short of a decades-long wasted opportunity for solar brands—a self-inflicted catastrophe.
There’s a market clearly waiting for panels: for the first time, the majority of Americans now consider climate change to be a serious threat. According to Pew Research, almost half of all U.S. homeowners have considered getting solar panels at one time. But of that total, only 6 percent have actually followed through on getting them.
Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the impact their purchases have on the planet, inspiring and influencing brands across just about every industry. And as a result, everyone from clothing brands to detergents have thrived by putting the environment first in their brand story and public-facing messaging. They’ve established themselves as knowledgeable authorities on how to guide their respective industries toward a more sustainable future.
How on Earth has an industry dedicated to nothing other than reducing the biggest drivers of climate change failed to capture even a fraction of that passion?
The electric power industry should be ripe for this level of disruption. As the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and energy demands only growing, consumers should be more motivated to switch to an eco-friendlier alternative than ever before. On paper, solar energy should be the premier candidate to serve as this difference-making product for consumers. In reality, it’s barely making a dent.
Pew’s research suggests half of America’s 82.5 million homeowners have considered a solar option, but 6% conversion for an entire industry is a wake-up call. Because despite all the optimism about year-to-year growth and a strong return on investment, solar energy only accounts for 3% of all energy generated nationwide right now. When looking at these numbers, leadership at every solar energy company should be thinking to themselves, “What can I be doing to make customers care more about my product?”
The answer, of course, lies in messaging. Sunpro, Blue Raven, and SunPower are three of the top-rated solar panel installers in the country. Any prospective customer who visits their websites will undoubtedly have a case of déjà vu right after. “Save Today. Go Solar,” is the first sentence a customer sees when going on Sunpro’s website. Similarly, “Save Money, Go Green,” is Blue Raven’s. And SunPower—a company described as “Silicon Valley’s dominant solar panel manufacturer”—opens its messaging with “Get Record-Breaking Home Solar and Save More,” followed by a call-to-action where visitors are asked to provide personal information before any other kind of engagement.
Of these nearly identical sales pitches rooted in costs and savings, which one would a homeowner trust to keep their family warm on a cold winter’s night? Each company has chosen to highlight price and convenience above all else. While Sunpro does have videos of client testimonials that could potentially tell a more impactful story, their talking points remain centered around savings. SunPower’s blog page could be another potential difference-maker as a place to expand on the more value-led messages that could connect SunPower to consumers’ growing desire to stem climate change. However, most of its articles focus on the nuts and bolts of solar pricing and maintenance.
Time and time again, it’s been proven that purchasing decisions are made subconsciously, often inspired by an emotional connection to a product or brand. Each of the solar companies above fails to establish a true identity for themselves that could connect on this level. Customers looking to get a better understanding of who these companies are and what they stand for will only be disappointed.
Nickels and dimes are no way to anchor a sustainable brand. Doing so makes it too easy for the customer to associate it with cheapness. (And if being cheap is a customer’s primary motivator, brand comparisons will be made on cost and cost alone… enjoy the race to the bottom!) Neither Patagonia nor Seventh Generation got to where they are today because they undersold their competitors. Instead, they forged an emotional connection with their audience based on shared values.
While Patagonia’s messaging focuses on how it’s helping the environment on a large-scale, Seventh Generation emphasizes its small-scale effects, namely with the family. On its homepage, for instance, the first image a visitor sees is a mother warmly embracing her child. This image is then paired with the tagline “A Deep Clean That’s Safer for Your Family.” Although on the surface, this messaging can be seen as product focused, the image helps add emotional heft that immediately makes the visitor emotionally engaged.
None of the major solar companies offer this type of emotional connection. Their messages are still bogged down by long-term savings and tax rebates, which fail to make a lasting connection with potential customers. Consequently, each one is resigned to tread water in the sea of sameness.
A compelling, differentiated story is of particular importance in this market. Solar panels have long fought against a reputation of having substandard, unreliable quality, and the result has been a lack of trust. A lot of misinformation has been deliberately spread about solar over the years. These attacks painted it as an expensive, unreliable energy source based on characteristics prominent in earlier versions of solar products. Panels from the industry’s infancy were expensive and relatively inefficient. Like any new technology, however, countless improvements have been made over time, leading to plummeting costs and increased reliability.
Some of the industry mistrust also comes from how solar has been presented to prospective customers. Historically, they were sold door-to-door—not an effective way to build trust or any kind of long-term customer experience. There’s no accountability in that sales environment, no relationship to be built, and for many prospective customers, this was too invasive of a tactic for them to ever feel truly engaged in a solar brand.
Manufacturers now have a product they can stand behind but no way to form the customer connections that would give them a venue to showcase that. Having a strong product that lacks a passionate customer base is a common problem that many major brands have had to overcome. A connective, human story that addresses customers’ needs has almost always been the solution.
Prior to 1984, Apple faced a similar battle. Its Macintosh line of personal computers were technically advanced and offered a lot of capabilities that at-home computer users were looking for. Ad messaging focused on the ability to check the stock market or balance your bank account with text-heavy ads that looked similar to ads every other manufacturer had at the time. Apple’s product was solid and could deliver on its promise, but the messaging was mired in the language of features and benefits that did little to position Apple as anything but identical to its competition.
The breakthrough came in 1984 with its iconic “1984” commercial. This message, showing an athletic woman shattering the voice of the status quo amid a sea of worker drones, was about empowering people, helping them break out and letting them do what they wanted. Its Macintosh home computer was positioned as a talisman of freedom, not a collection of advanced hardware and software. That messaging escalated over decades to position Apple as a vehicle for creative expression and something that let people “think different.” While PCs bragged about hardware capabilities, Mac showed people how easy it was to share photos and connect with friends.
By finding a message that engaged consumers based on their needs and wants, Apple built a brand that now dominates the market. Like solar panels, its product offered a better solution than the status quo. It just needed the right way to engage people and make them care about its brand.
Solar energy providers similarly need to present themselves as saviors from a broken status quo. As increasing demand continues to burden an aging grid and energy companies are reluctant to switch away from fossil fuels, now is the perfect time for a solar energy provider to have their “1984” moment. When one breaks through, it will do so because it has a message that connects people’s existing need for something better with a brand that reminds them why they care in the first place. That product will emerge as one that is unique, effective and, much like Apple in 1984, providing customers with the same feeling that a better way is possible.
Gregory Cala is a storyteller at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative or send us an email at email@example.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.