SmartPower Breaks the Solar Barrier With Their "Solarize" Campaign

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Brian Keane is a marketing guy. He understands how to sell things. And as president of SmartPower, a non-profit, solar marketing company, he knows how to sell residential solar to consumers.

When I spoke to him last week, he told me had had “cracked the code” on selling solar. He said he saw it as his job to sell solar power to “regular people” who will buy it, not as an expression of an identity or an ideology, but rather because it simply makes sense. Because, he said, “the fact that it's good for the environment is not a sufficient motivator for many people.”

That is proven out by the fact that 80% of Americans say they'd like to have solar, but only around 3% actually own it.

But Keane has found a way to turn that around. How does he do it? It's a marketing campaign that consists of on-the-ground outreach, by members of the community in which they are selling. In a sense it's as much a community organizing campaign as anything else.

Here's how it works. His organization creates a “Solarize” campaign at the state level. Right now they are working on Solarize Connecticut. They open a selection process to communities that are interested in promoting solar power. Then they solicit volunteers who will do the actual outreach. They stay in each community for 20 weeks.

Says Keane, “We're not recreating the grassroots field. We're simply organizing what's already there. And the grassroots outreach is not going door to door. We reach out to local organizations, church groups, etc. and let them do the outreach. If I'm a member of a local group and I get an email from our leader saying we have an opportunity to get a great deal on solar, I'm going to be a lot more open to that than if some stranger came knocking on my door.”

By working with locals and bringing the solar store into the community they are able to overcome the fear of the unknown and the unfamiliarity that often create barriers.

“When we first started,” said Keane, “We assumed that the major barrier was cost. But cost doesn't stop most people from buying premium products. And solar is a premium product. So maybe it's not about cost, but about values. After all, people buy solar for different reasons: because it's a cool gadget, to keep up with Joneses, or maybe to rebel against the utility company.

“But in the end,” Keane said, “I realized that all those reasons boil down to just two:because they want it, or because they need it, in that order.”

I told him it sounds like he's been listening to Freud's nephew, Edwin Bernays, the father of public relations. Bernays recognized that people made buying decisions more on the basis of unconscious fears and desires than from rational decision-making. Bernays actually substituted the term public relations for propaganda, though he felt that the two were equivalent. He was very successful as both an adviser to presidents and consultant to many major corporations.

“So this is what we do. We come into a community and say we are having a sale on solar energy. We go through an RFP process to identify a solar installer and we set up a tiered pricing schedule where the more people that buy solar, the lower the price will be for everyone. Very often, a local installer is selected by the townspeople, even if they aren't the lowest cost.

"The tiered pricing brings the solar store to the neighborhood. It's the power of community. The buzz. It's what everyone is talking about, are you going to get in on it?

"So what happens is it becomes a grassroots campaign. We have volunteers in the community, signing people up and most of them don't work for us. Most of them are local citizen volunteers from various churches or environmental groups that really want to see this happen. Town officials get into it, too. And once people sign up, they become motivated to sign up others because, if they do, their price will come down. It becomes a marketing army with a sense of urgency because of the limited time. It's never going to be cheaper than it is right now.”

So, I asked, how has that been working?

“Results have been impressive, in every single community we've done this in, we have sold as much solar in 20 weeks, then had been installed in the previous seven years.”

Wow, that is impressive.

"Yes, but what might be even more impressive, is the fact that a full 20% of our buyers had not thought of buying solar before. This is going beyond low hanging fruit, beyond the tree-hugger that you would expect to buy, and into the mainstream consumer market. That's why I say we have broken the code and reached a tipping point. This report summarizes the results."

So the local aspect of your work seems to carry a lot of significance.

"What we're really doing is community organizing. It's not an entirely new idea, it's a bit like what Avon cosmetics did or the old vacuum cleaners salesmen."

But it's more than that, because you're leveraging and at the same time, strengthening, the sense of community.

"That's right."

So maybe it's time for those people selling solar to start looking at it differently.

"Yes, I think so. As an industry, the clean energy/energy efficiency industry has not effectively marketed themselves along the lines of Madison Avenue. It has always considered itself a niche market of green environmentalists and as such, it has never been able to break through into the [mainstream] marketplace.”

Are there collateral benefits?

"Yes. People who buy solar power, ultimately back into energy efficiency. Once they have their solar power, they say, 'wait a minute. I don't want my solar power just to power my TV when it's off. I want if to power real stuff, I want it to power the lights.' If right now it's powering 30% of their home they want to know how can they get that up to 50 per cent And then they start becoming much more energy efficient at home.

They get the feedback that shows them how well they are doing, which motivates them to improve, just like with Prius owners that are always trying to get better mileage, even if that means driving the speed limit.

So, in essence they start becoming energy smart. Energy is probably the only product we buy that we are constantly using, every minute of every day. Like air, we tend to take it for granted because it's always there, until it's not. Then, of course, if you have solar, you are more resilient. When the power lines go down, you still have power."

So where do we go from here?

"If we can get renewable energy and efficiency out of the sphere of politics and back into the sphere of consumer choice, where it belongs, people will simply buy it. But because we need state public utility commissions, or corporation commissions to approve of net-metering laws and otherwise provide a favorable climate for this type of investment, it will unfortunately still remain political in those places, like Arizona, for example, that oppose it."