The nascent community solar industry is evolving rapidly as the many players in the market work furiously to find an advantage. The industry has seemingly solved the issues around development and project finance. Customer acquisition is also moving in the right direction. But the one area that is glaringly weak still is customer retention, which is the component of the value chain that will make or break projects in the long term. Customer retention starts and ends with brand value. Unfortunately, branding is something that most community solar companies don’t get.
The power of a strong brand, more than price or other factors, often determines the success of a product in the market.
What are the components of a strong brand? Sure, a logo and a web site are important parts, but they are just the beginning. A brand needs to stand for something, a set of values that are unique to it. If you look at the various community solar web sites you see a common pattern. There are usually claims about helping the environment, about saving people money, and about bringing solar to more people than ever before. All of these are accompanied by stock photos of either projects or people. It’s very hard to find anything that truly stands out.
A brand is also the culture of the team – the personalities of the leadership, the employees, and the overall culture a company creates. Most companies don’t intentionally create a certain culture, it just sort of happens organically. However, the truly unique brands create cultures that imbue everything they do. A part of culture is also the brand’s commitment to diversity at all levels of the organization.
The way a company treats its community, including its customers, is another important brand attribute.
Looking at the community solar space, what are the most important brand attributes that companies should think about? We know that community solar is essentially a service business. The product is a subscription to a local solar farm, something that is intangible. The direct benefit of the product for the consumer are savings on their electric bills and the indirect benefit is helping fight climate change, cleaning local air quality, and supporting the local economy. These benefits are universal across brands in the space. They are a “must have” for any community solar brand.
But here’s the thing. If you strip out these must-have brand attributes, it’s very difficult to find much of anything that’s left to distinguish one brand from another. It’s as if all of these brands are betting that they will succeed because consumers will have a complete lack of knowledge about the market and will only see their web site or ads. That may actually be true in the very short term for new community solar markets. But if a brand wants to play the long game, and have a revenue producing asset for many years to come than it has to do more than just follow the pack. It needs to give customers reasons to stick with them that goes beyond savings, which can easily be met or exceeded by competing projects. The only way to keep customer retention rates high is by building a strong brand.
At Neighborhood Sun we’ve focused very purposely on building a brand that has depth and credibility beyond the “must-haves.” It’s a key to our outstanding customer retention rate. We have built this unique brand through the way we operate as much as the images and graphics we use to represent our values. It starts with authenticity. Progressive consumers want to work with a brand that shares their values, all things being equal. They are sophisticated enough to look beyond the pretty logo and the stock photos of solar farms. They want to know who is the team behind the brand and what do they stand for that’s different than others. That overlaps with the next important brand component – transparency. A good brand can’t hide behind generic, “vanilla” web sites. It needs to share as much information as possible with its community. Authenticity and transparency go a long way towards establishing strong brand credibility and ultimately engender loyalty.
Finally, the values you hold and subsequent culture you build will determine whether consumers will value your brand over others. We are a B Corporation because that fits our value of using our business as a force for positive change. While there are various levels of B Corps, with some having low scores overall while others (like NSun!) have extremely high scores, we are all committed to doing business in a better way. Once you decide what your values are, stand behind them! For example, don’t hold “excellent customer service” as a value without demonstrating how you do that differently than others.
Deciding on a brand position is much easier than executing on it. Any company can hire a brand consultant or marketer to help them design a brand identity and list some “important” brand attributes. The real challenge is in demonstrating how your company lives those brand values every day, and in establishing that your brand comes from an authentic place. Communities have been burned too many times by brands in good industries, including solar, harming them through very unscrupulous practices. So being a generic “community solar” company won’t cut it. You need a powerful brand to act as a magnet holding your customers loyal and rallying others to get behind it. That’s the only way to play the long game.
Image credit: pikisuperstar