What's in a brand when choosing solar panels?
Posted by Chris Jardine on 6 August 2013 at 12:04 pm
In the latest of my series of blogs looking at what makes the ‘best’ solar panel, I thought I’d look at the importance of brand name in determining product choice. Perhaps you’ve bought a new TV lately? How did you choose what one to get? Perhaps you’ve just picked up an impression of who makes good quality TVs, perhaps you’ve seen something advertised and it’s grabbed your fancy, or perhaps you bought the same make as last time round. So-called cultural norms, advertising, and brand loyalty - all of these are typical influences in consumer choice of any product.
So how might this work in the solar energy sector? Well brand is important, but perhaps not in the way in which you might expect. Let’s examine the three key features.
First, cultural norms – solar energy is a new market, so people don’t have very strong general knowledge of what the biggest brands are, although installers probably do and their product choices will in some way reflect this. Advertising from PV manufacturers, apart from a few high profile exceptions, is generally not there. And repeat purchases? With a lifetime of 25 years, potentially even 40, it’s pretty unlikely that repeat purchase is going to become an important aspect of product choice until the 2040s!
Nonetheless, perceived brand value can give you confidence in your purchase. I’d broadly categorise the market as follows:
• Type 1. Large electronics conglomerates. These tend to be larger Japanese industrial conglomerates, which offer a wide range of products, of which solar is one. Companies such as Sharp, Sanyo/Panasonic, Mitsubishi carry very strong brands due to the popularity of their other products.
• Type 3. Recent years have seen Chinese companies enter the market and, because they are newer, quality has been harder to quantify. I’d split the Chinese manufacturers into Type 3 and 4. Type 3 are those with a strong brand presence – you may have seen Yingli Solar plastered all over the advertising hoardings at the 2010 World Cup and you will see the same again in Brazil 2014. Trina have also been highly visible.
• Type 4. I would qualify as Chinese-manufactured modules of low brand presence, competing mainly on price, and under-the-radar, to wholesale and commercial markets.
Based on this categorisation, you’ll have some perception of brand strength of different products, as will installers. Broadly, installers like established brands, as they can piggyback off the consumer confidence in the PV product to sell their installation service.
Where brand value is particularly important I’d say, is in providing confidence that any product warranties are worth the paper they are written on. If the worst came to the worst and you needed to claim on product warranties you want to be sure that the manufacturer still be in business in 15 years’ time. I think we can say Type 1 definitely will be, Types 2 and 3 are likely to be, but one can’t really say with Type 4. This is where brand value, which is essentially an emotional response, actually means something tangible in terms of risk.
Brand value has also proven to be particularly important for inverters. SMA and Fronius have been the 2 market leaders in the UK since the industry started back in the early 2000s and have maintained that position, despite increased competition from the likes of Power One, Steca, Enecsys etc. The reason for this isn’t entirely technical – they have maintained their top status, because they have the strongest brand, because of their top status.
To conclude therefore, brand value is as important in the solar sector as it is in the TV market and all others. But the reasons are very different in an emerging market with no repeat purchase likely for the next 30 years.
Chris' other solar panel blogs
About the author: Chris Jardine is technical director of Joju Solar and teaches on the MSc course in Environmental Change and Management at Oxford University.
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