Why we should call ourselves solar companies, not ‘energy’ companies

by Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza

The solar industry’s brand is very strong, with huge bipartisan public support, so when I see solar installers and manufacturers referring to themselves as simply “energy companies,” the industry is unintentionally diminishing its brand. While I don’t believe solar companies are trying to hide their solar roots, I’d like to offer four reasons why industry marketers and communicators should elevate the word “solar” in our company brands and communications as much as possible.

But before I offer those suggestions, let’s all get on the same page about what I mean by brand. Some people think a brand is a unique symbol, like your logo or a name or a catchy slogan, perhaps even a musical tone like Intel’s, but those are just individual reflections of the brand. The brand itself is a feeling, so the logos, colors, music and slogans are just different ways that our customers and stakeholders perceive that emotional and invisible feeling.

With that brand definition in mind, when we include the word solar in our company brands, it gives the media, legislators and our customers an instant brand feeling. We immediately receive the feeling of an energy source that is safe, clean, renewable, green and many more attributes. On the other hand, when we just describe ourselves as an “energy company,” we lose that instant and positive brand feeling. Our audience must take a deeper dive to realize that a mentioned “energy” company is a solar energy company, not a dirty energy company.

If you’ve already defined yourself as “Smith Energy,” you don’t have to rebrand yourself to Smith Solar or Smith Solar Energy, but you could add a sub-slogan to your logo, such as “a solar company” or “a solar solutions company.”

With all that in mind, here are those four reasons for why we should include “solar” in our company brands and communications:

1) Solar’s public brand isn’t good; it’s fantastic on both sides of the aisle. If you’re calling yourself a solar energy company, that brings up a lot of warm and fuzzies with most of the public. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 89% of U.S. adults favor expanding the use of solar power. When you break it down along party lines, 97% of Democrats and 83% of conservative Republicans want more solar. A March 2017 Pew Research poll showed that Americans see wind and solar power as effective in minimizing air pollution, yet another reason your brand should be aligned with solar energy, not just “energy.” You want your company to take advantage of that broad public support for solar.

2) Oil, gas and coal companies call themselves “energy companies.” It used to be that oil, gas and coal companies would call themselves exactly what they were, using “oil,” “gas” or “coal” in their names and slogans. Now, they’re increasingly just referring to themselves as “energy companies,” because “energy” company doesn’t bring up the negative connotations of an oil spill, explosion or gas leak.

Take Chevron, for example. Clearly, they’re a famous oil and gas company, but it seems like that wording has been minimized as much as possible to diminish its oil and gas brand. In fact, the company website’s About page is scrubbed of any mention of these main products. Take a look:

Another example is ExxonMobil’s home page. The company’s new slogan is “Energy Lives Here,” but this slogan eliminates its main oil and gas products. Even the top menu bar doesn’t have oil or gas as an option. It’s just “Energy.” Subtle, but like Chevron, it minimizes the company’s association with oil and gas, which are often linked to pollution, fracking and environmental damage.

Many other energy companies have come out of the fossil fuel business, so when you also call your solar company an energy company, industry brand confusion is possible.

3) We still need solar to have brand recognition for advocacy purposes. As solar succeeds and grows, we are faced with many regulatory obstacles from the other energy industries. Whether it’s net metering or renewable portfolio standards, we need as much positive solar industry brand visibility and brand affinity as we can get right now. The more we hide our current positive solar brand, the more it looks like two commodity energy companies are facing off in court and at PUC hearings, not clean energy solar companies standing up to gas companies.

4) We need to bring energy storage/batteries under our positive solar brand. One of the biggest broken records we hear about solar from politicians is that solar energy doesn’t work at night or when the sun isn’t shining. That’s why energy storage has become so important to maintaining and even enhancing our already-positive brand. As we incorporate “batteries” or “energy storage” into our solar offerings, let’s consistently include “solar” when mentioning energy storage products. For example, “solar plus storage,” “solar with energy storage” or “solar PV with batteries.” The more people feel and understand that they can keep their lights on with solar coupled with batteries, the more they will ask themselves why they aren’t going solar yet.

In summary, when we label solar companies as “energy” companies, we’re weakening our overall positive solar brand and causing brand confusion with dirty energy companies. As much as possible, let’s continue to keep our positive solar energy brand front and center in the minds and hearts of the media, customers and legislators.

Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza is senior strategy adviser for Kiterocket’s renewable energy practice and a communications consultant for other solar and renewables brands.