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YouGen guide to marketing renewable energy

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 6 August 2012 at 10:35 am

While many of the renewable energy technologies have been around for a long time, the market for renewable energy is still young. The products are  expensive, the government subsidies can be complicated and (in the case of solar PV) a moving feast. Buyers are generally pretty ignorant about how renewable energy might benefit them, and whether it's suitable for their house, office, factory etc.

Added to this is the fact that over generous feed-in tariffs led to a huge explosion in the number of companies installing solar panels, many of whom now can't find enough work to survive in the new, leaner market.

All this means that it's even more important than ever that renewable energy companies take time to get the basics of marketing right, as they provide the solid foundation for all the different marketing campaigns that follow, and ensure that your messages are consistent.

1. Positioning your renewable energy company

Even the multinational giants like Coca Cola don't have 'everybody' as their target market. If you spray out leaflets and telesales without thinking about what your offer is and who your target markets are, most of it will miss by a mile.

In terms of quality of service and product are you the Lidl or Waitrose of your sector, or somewhere in between? Are you selling on price - or on value? Do you start with the product you're aiming to sell? Or do you start where the customer is, with their building and energy use, finding out what their motivation is, and building a solution that will bring them the greatest benefits for their budget?

Are you serving the domestic market, commercial buildings, farmers? Or a combination? Once you've decided, it's worth segmenting further. Industrial sites will have different needs from offices. Urban professionals with a young family, will want different solutions to retired couples living in the countryside.

Are you prepared to travel for jobs, and if so, how far? Will that impact on the level of follow-up service you can offer? 

These are all questions you need to answer before you start thinking about how to get your messages out.

2. Branding and differentiating your renewable energy company

There are lots of ways to describe a brand. Some say it's the company's personality. Others that it's what people say about your company behind your back. Essentially your brand exists in the minds of the people who come across your company, and it's based on the sum of all their experiences of your company, both rational and emotional.

You can influence that, by thinking carefully about what your company's vision, purpose and values are, and sharing that information with all your staff (and contractors). This will help them to know how to react in various situations and help deliver a consistent level of service across the company.

When a company starts up the values will be those of the founder(s). They may be implicit. Unless they are made explicit and shared with the staff, they will be diluted over time. Values are particularly important in helping you differentiate your company from your competitors. For example, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways fly similar planes on exactly the same route from Heathrow to New York. Yet they give a very different experience and levels of service. Look at the values below and you begin to understand why:

British Airways: safe and secure, responsible and honest, innovative and team spirit, global and caring

Virgin: quality, innovation, value for money, fun, a sense of challenge.

A great way of looking differently at your company's personality and values is to ask staff and customers to think about it in metaphors: for example ask them 'if [your company] was a car / dog / animal / bit of furniture, what would it be, and why?'. It's a great way to get some real insight into how people perceive your company.

Remember that your brand is like an iceberg. The bits you see above the water are the logo, the name, the corporate identity. But the bulk of it is under the water: your staff, customer service, marketing, R&D, processes and systems and culture are all part of your brand too.

3. Features and benefits of your products and services

People will only buy from you if, consciously or unconsciously, they understand how they will benefit from what you are offering. So, as a general rule, don't spend too much time listing what your product or service will do  - ie its features. Instead, spend more time on what it will do for them, how they will benefit, the difference it will make to their lives.

There are of course exceptions to this rule and engineers are definitely one. They like features - the more the better. And they like to know in much more detail than the rest of us about how things work. Given that many of the people setting up renewable energy companies are engineers, it's particularly important to check this tendency unless you are talking to a fellow geek!

Another way of putting it is the ubiquitous "don't sell the sausage, sell the sizzle". I prefer the example of the drill. For the domestic market you are selling the ability to hang a picture, or put up a curtain rail. Whereas for a tradesman, for whom the drill is an important part of his toolkit, the benefit of a higher powered drill will be the ability to get jobs done, quicker and easier. What will that do for him? It will save time and/or money (benefits for businesses often come down to saving time and money!).

If you sell a service contract with a heat pump, biomass boiler or solar panels, what you're really selling - the benefit - is peace of mind. The features are things like how soon you come after a call out; how often you service it, etc.

There will also be different benefits for solar PV for different customers. For a commercial client the cost of energy may be their focus, and if they have heavy day time electricity use the bill savings may be the key benefit. For a larger organisation it may be the contribution to carbon reduction targets, or it might be about enhancing their green credentials in a very visual way. Judicious questioning will help you work out what the drivers are for each new enquiry, and help you to focus on the right benefits for each one.

Domestic customers will be different again. For some it may just be the return on investment, but for many there are multiple drivers. Many are concerned about the rising price of fuel, and others like the idea of being self sufficient. If you just talk about the return on investment to them, you may be missing a trick or two.

Once you have the marketing basics in place it's time to think about which marketing techniques you are going to use, and have a better look at the market, and what's driving installations. That will be the subject of a future blog post.

More marketing information is available from: the Chartered Institute of Marketing; CIPR; econsultancy; Business Link; and Marketing Donut. Or try this book from the excellent beermat series: Marketing on a Beermat*. 

Photo by Dietmar Temps

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