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Today's Topic Is Solar Energy Systems

by Claudia H. Deutsch
New York Times, April 19, 2007

QUICK, true or false: Solar energy systems work only on hot, cloudless days. Rooftop systems come in one configuration - big and ugly. And if you generate more energy than you use, there is no way you can sell it elsewhere.

A Sharp ad intended to teach Californians about solar systems. For the record, the answer to all of those is: false. But last summer the Sharp Electronics Corporation, one of the biggest makers of rooftop solar panels, asked about 1,000 people those questions and was astounded at how many answered wrong.

So Sharp, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sharp Corporation of Japan and RiechesBaird, the ad agency it hired in July, tabled their original plan to push the virtues of Sharp systems among installers, builders and distributors. Instead, they embarked on a six-month campaign to teach homeowners in California - the state with the most generous government incentives for solar energy - how it works.

Their hope is that - to borrow a phrase from Sy Syms, the discount clothing entrepreneur - an educated consumer will eventually be their best customers.

"For Sharp, it's a business-to-business sale, but the market is still consumer-driven," said John J. Capano, vice president for planning and strategy at RiechesBaird. Once consumers understand "what solar is all about," added Marc Cortez, director of marketing for Sharp's solar energy solutions group, "word of mouth will wind up being a powerful advertising tool."

Sharp is betting a lot on that premise. Mr. Cortez said that even without costly television ads, the campaign, which is confined to California for now, would run into the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," three times the cost of any solar campaign the company has run.

Sharp's ads, which are scheduled to run in California newspapers and magazines as well as on Web sites, take a light approach to solar. "Today's forecast: sunny, with lower electricity bills," says one. "Let there be light. And TV and vacuuming and blenders and microwave ovens," says another. Each carries the tagline "Hello Sunshine," and each suggests a visit to, the educational Web site Sharp has put up.

Sharp has paid for advertising on search engines like Google when Web surfers seek information about solar energy. And it has encouraged consumers to sign up to receive monthly newsletters by e-mail.

The newsletters are crammed with interesting tidbits. For example, the amount of sunlight hitting the earth in just one minute is enough to provide the world's energy needs for an entire year, according to Sharp.

They also recite the many savings available for consumers on electricity bills. The early newsletters do not address the thousands of dollars it can cost to install a system, but Sharp promises to tackle that subject in the future. Newsletters are also expected to discuss the effect of solar systems on home values (good, natch), the systems' role in energy independence and their reliability.

Next month Sharp plans to send a trailer with a rooftop solar panel to sites in California, for demonstrations of how the system can run a television set and other appliances (needless to say, the trailer will be towed by a hybrid vehicle). And in August, when the current campaign runs its course, Sharp expects to send posters and lesson plans to elementary-school teachers to help them teach about solar energy.

"It was children who taught parents about recycling, and children will teach parents about solar energy," said Ronald Kenedi, vice president of Sharp's solar energy solutions group.

The idea, Mr. Capano of RiechesBaird said, is to demystify solar energy for relatively well-educated people between 35 and 55 who have family incomes of at least $100,000. These people are probably not in the market for new energy systems right now, but they just might be a year or two down the road, he said.

The idea of selling a concept to sell a brand later is not new, of course. Toyota spent a lot of money educating people about hybrid cars before it mounted a hard sell for the Prius. And Marcal Paper, which sells tissues, napkins and such made from recycled paper, has been sending posters, lesson plans and quizzes about recycling to elementary-school teachers.

"The children will teach their parents now, and in the future, they may be Marcal customers themselves," said Peter Marcalus, a senior vice president at Marcal.

That approach can certainly work for solar, marketing experts say. "Solar is not yet at the brand differentiation stage," said Edwin R. Stafford, an associate professor of marketing at Utah State University's college of business who has done research into ways to market green products. "You've got to persuade people that, yes, their television will run on a cloudy day, that ,yes, they can sell excess electricity back to the utility. Only then can you start selling your brand."

But in a sense, the Sharp campaign is not really filling an educational vacuum. Plenty of Web sites offer cogent explanations of the ins and outs of solar power. And Sharp's competitors have not been hiding under a rock. One example is, run by San Diego's Clean Power Systems. It asks, "Why rent your electricity? when you can own and $ave." But it takes the hard-sell approach: "Only a Clean Power System will give you everything you need to stop renting your electricity."

Some marketing executives say that this kind of straight sell might work better in California. "California is ground zero for awareness of global-warming issues, and selling the concept of solar power there is like selling beverages in the desert," said Allen P. Adamson, managing director of the brand consulting firm Landor Associates. "So if Sharp's product is ready for prime time, it would feel more sophisticated if they just went ahead and told their story."

The Sharp people beg to differ. They are certain that consumers would respond far better to information that is served one course at a time rather than to a buffet of facts and sales pitches. In fact, Mr. Capano said that the campaign deliberately did not include phone numbers of system installers in the newsletters.

"There's so much data out there that it's like reading 'War and Peace,' " he said. "After a while, you just can't remember which princess went off with which nobleman. If we teach them a little bit at a time, we have a better chance at making solar a mainstream consideration."

Claudia H. Deutsch
Today's Topic Is Solar Energy Systems
New York Times, April 19, 2007

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