As Solar Spreads Out, Marketing Makes an Entrance

Highlights :

  • In a welcome development for the solar market, firms are finally investing in marketing and sales to expand in a growing market.
  • The shift has been led by both market dynamics (larger market) and the need to go beyond price for many, as other factors like service, quality and warranties come into play.

Just over 30 months ago, SaurEnergy did a feature on rooftop solar, “Residential Solar. Market Yes, But Marketing?” That story, in our April 2020 issue talked about the potential in the rooftop solar category, albeit, residential. But there was almost complete lack of formal marketing tactics from firms to attract customers. The few firms with a national presence could be counted on your fingers, notably Tata Power with its rooftop offering that has a presence across over 100 cities.

The good news is, the picture has changed significantly. That has been driven by growth at the ground level as well as in the C&I (Commercial & Industrial) category, which has supported higher investments into marketing infrastructure at many firms.

But in a sector as core as energy, perhaps the bigger trigger has been government policy. With a commitment to drive in domestic manufacturing, along with ambitious targets that have been reiterated at COP27 recently, the solar sector has discovered its own ‘double engine’. These are the high import duties on module and cell imports (40% and 25% respectively), and a policy environment at the ground level that is much more supportive today. The situation should only get better as RPO (Renewable purchase obligations) across states become stricter with real fines, instead of the mild rap on the knuckles discoms get from state regulators so far when they miss.

With capacities already being expanded even before the duty structure, that was announced a full year ahead of coming into force, firms have been on an expansion spree. Thus, even as the official ALMM (approved list of Module Manufacturers) have moved from an approved domestic capacity of 8500 MW in March 2019 (when the list first came out) to almost 20 GW now, capacities in the pipeline should take that number to 40+GW by 2024 end.

Perhaps the only issue that many firms today will have is that the second tranche of the Rs 19,500 crore Solar PLI scheme, meant to support domestic manufacturing, has a cut-off of 1 GW. That sends a very clear signal to smaller manufacturers on their future.

Hardip Singh

Hardip Singh

For manufacturers like Waaree Energies, Goldi Solar and others, that has meant a serious effort to add muscle to their marketing team, in some cases, even setting up the division for the first time. Goldi Solar, for instance, has seen their distributor count go up from 9 to 30 in the past year and more.  Under a team led by Hardip Singh, President and Global Head (Sales and Marketing), Goldi Solar, under the broader umbrella of marketing communication, separate teams are focused on marketing and customer acquisition and a PR team. While the former is more about awareness and lead generation, the PR team works on external communications and overall brand positioning. For Goldi Solar, and many other larger firms, even CSR spending is part of the broader marketing  objective.

What Has Changed

So obviously, the potential market has grown. But so have customer expectations. Decision making is no longer the preserve of consultants, or driven by pressure to greenwash (for corporates)  or do their token bit for the environment. Quite simply, solar has become a viable option in more and more situations and regions, kindling interest in it like nothing else.

Ritu Lal

Ritu Lal

Ritu Lal, Senior Vice-President and Head of Institutional Relations at Amplus Solar has noticed that even in the residential space. “In terms of decision-makers, I think homeowners who are driven by a variety of needs – from cutting their carbon footprint and making an environmental impact, to those who are willing to invest in solar because it delivers long-term savings over their electricity bills, are and will continue to be the final decision-makers.”

Thus, with decision-making moving into newer hands, along with the scale of the decision itself, especially in the corporate segment, firms are needed to communicate their benefits and pitches better. Surprisingly, most firms still prioritise the broader message of ensuring customers actually understand the implications or complexity of a call to shift towards solar is understood well.

Varun Haritash

Varun Haritash

Varun Haritash, Marketing Manager (South Asia) for Sungrow Power, the leading inverter firm globally also believes that the messaging has changed, “Our focus is on making consumers aware about new technological advancements that are happening in the products and ultimately reducing their projects LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) through these products. As a global company having presence in 150 countries, it shows the acceptance of Sungrow worldwide to them. Besides one of the largest manufacturing facilities (10 GW inverter capacity) in India, we stress on our service network and our role as  the only company who offers products in all segments that is, residential, commercial and utilities.”

The corporate and industrial sector might be driving the numbers for now, but the market for residential rooftop is also opening up fast. For firms, the ideal marketing pitch will achieve results with both, especially at the top end of the market. While talking about the high importance of referrals and word of mouth for instance, many people we spoke to highlighted how senior executives at firms that went for solar also opted to do it at home, once they saw its effectiveness.

However, the process remains complicated seeing as it involves energy, and its related safety and compliance issues. Customers even today will point to the actual time taken to get the plant actually activated as the biggest issue, something that no amount of marketing can change, seeing how it is dependent on other actors like discoms and inspections by different state authorities. Rules can also vary from state to state.

Ritu Lal also highlights that “The number one issue is simply the awareness of how exactly solar works. A solar plant is much more than just solar panels. There is tech in its entirety along with multiple components. People lack the knowledge of how all of this is put together and that hinders decision-making. The second hurdle for consumers is finding the right supplier. How do they go about finding one and will the choice be a good one or not? Third of course, is trust and reliability. Considering they are investing upfront, and the savings is a long-term process, there is a lack of confidence in taking this decision. Access to finance is also a major concern for those who are looking for it to help make this switch.”

That consumer wish list in fact is serving as the template for business models and marketing approaches, as firms begin to highlight their quality partners, incentives, after-sales support and even financing to kickstart their own sales pipeline.

How Firms Are Adapting

Deepak Pandey

Deepak Pandey

Besides the obvious rush to hire for marketing and seek out partner agencies and firms, most firms in the solar business are also evaluating internal systems afresh. In a business where lead generation is still the primary task and target, that has meant a renewed focus on processes that convert leads, and now, drive referral traffic. While some like Amplus Solar have even used testimonial-driven communication officially, all the firms we spoke to highlight how referrals, or word of mouth remains critical to the category. For Deepak Pandey, CEO and Founder at Invergy Power, a startup in the renewable energy space,  referrals built around high touch, high quality sales and support are the best indicator that his team is doing its job well. “As a startup, we have appreciated the value of presence across social media and digital, but referrals are critical when you are trying to sell high value solutions”, he adds. Invergy provides inverters and storage solutions, and ties up with trusted EPC partners to execute projects.

Amplus Solar’s Ritu puts it succinctly when she adds that “No amount of self-advertising can have the same credibility as the honest opinion of someone who has availed of our services.”

Rajni Bhandari

Rajni Bhandari

Rajni Bhandari, Associate Director at Marketing, Amp Energy India, takes pride in its existing set of clients, who help generate business leads for the firm repeatedly, “For us, new project opportunities come from both repeat business from existing customers as well as inbound or outbound queries by new customers as we have managed to build a reliable brand that is trusted by customers for their renewable energy transition.” One cannot stress on the importance of marquee customers who are influential in your market as they have a great bearing on how your brand is perceived. Bhandari revels in its marquee customers, “As an example, we have repeat orders from marquee customers such as Skoda Volkswagen India, Tata Hitachi, Kochi Metro and at the same time we recently signed a PPA with Amazon for 100 MW which is a first-time customer for us.”

Whatever marketing firms did do, or have, was linked to participation in trade events and exhibitions. While most did this domestically, the biggest firms like Vikram Solar, Waaree Energies, Adani Solar have been participating in international events for some time now. And for good reason. These continue to provide leads and visibility, on a relatively competitive budget, although as the market expands now, the metrics might change too.

goodwe solar inverters

Expect To See Many More Of these

The Partner Perspective

The change in approach, expectations and yes, even budgets has been noticed by key communication partners too. A senior executive at a creative agency that has just pitched  for a solar account informs us that expectations have changed completely in the past two years. “Earlier, these accounts did not really interest us as there was very limited work, plus briefs used to be all about basic announcements, if at all. In fact, these firms had such low expectations that they would try and manage in-house or with freelancers. That has changed now. For our latest pitch brief, there is a well laid out thought on reaching out to the mass market, with a level of targeting you would expect in this category.”

PR firms, for long the primary external agencies that were used by solar firms, have also geared up for new demands. A senior management person at a firm handling a key solar client tells us that “client/s today have a much more evolved set of requirements. Earlier, it was the odd announcement of a project win, or even partnering with the government on some initiative. Today, we have the whole gamut of needs from getting quoted on stories, to announcing new joinings, to fundraising plans, financing tie-ups, CXO opinion pieces in leading media, and more.”

Partner Perspective

Expansion leads to marketing

Critically, budgets have finally grown to enable these partners to invest and focus on the solar category too. Across the 12-15 industry people we spoke to among manufacturers, developers and other service providers, the marketing budget was estimated at between 5-8% as compared to 2-3% until two years back. Hardip Singh of Goldi Solar, a firm that has revamped significantly since 2020 points out, “If production capacity goes up 5 times, then budgets have to catch up to market that too.”

Interestingly, the partner ecosystem still seems to have some way to go. Amplus’ Ritu says, “Like the consumer, at this moment, even within the marketing ecosystem and agencies, there is a lack of awareness of exactly how solar works. Yes, it poses a challenge in terms of sharing briefs and creating high-quality ideas.”

Sungrows Varun is more generous, adding that, “Yes they are well equipped to grasp the essence of what is required from them, but I feel there is still a chance for further improvements through regular communications and sharing of ideas”.

The Way Ahead

Chasing a market that should be as big as 6-8 GW per year in terms of the prospects for C&I and residential rooftop (with the C&I category including large round mounted plants too), the industry has much to go for. Unlike utility scale solar, where the cost per MW can vary between Rs 3.25 to 4.5 crores, in rooftop solar, thanks to the higher levels of customisation due to smaller capacities that start at 2 kW at times, and discretion with the end customers, realisations can go upto Rs 7 crores per MW installed for a firm. A secondary benefit for the government of course should be the much higher employment generation that will result from large rooftop solar penetration.

Rajneesh Singh

Rajneesh Singh

However, to expect a complete shift of the category to how, say, consumer durables are sold is too early. That is largely due to the fact that even in the rooftop category, the share of the C&I segment is expected to remain quite high, with most of the larger players happy to seek the larger projects available here. That ensures that marketing will still be more B2B than B2C yet. Most of our respondents in this story expect the shift to a wholly consumer-led model to take another 3-7 years, depending on their perspective.

The Reliance and Adani Groups do cast a long shadow over the sector with their massive plans, but with their huge captive requirements, as well as focus on exports for the Adani Group, they are not an existential threat yet. The Adani Group is the more likely to make its presence felt though, as evident from both their capacity expansions as well as ventures into more parts of the supply chain, where they have typically gone in with the security of 30-60% captive consumption, be it for solar trackers, solar glass or others.

Siddharth Gangal

Siddharth Gangal

For many of the smaller manufacturers, a shift to EPC offerings has been necessitated to ensure offtake. Others have sought to find a niche within large government-backed programs, notably the PMKUSUM which has a mission to solarise 2.7 million solar water pumps with upto 7.5 HP capacity, besides 10,000 MW of ground-mounted solar. Older panels based on polycrystalline technology are still being used in these cases, providing a market for the smaller manufacturers who cannot or are unwilling to invest in newer tech.

Aggregator models like those in the US, where firms like GoodLeap and Mosaic have built multi-billion dollar businesses targeting the rooftop segment with a platform approach that provides the suppliers, financing and warranties all in one place are bound to make an appearance sooner than later. Solar Square, an EPC player with the added USP of financing, much like Amplus Solar did for its C&I customers under the OPEX model recently raised Rs 100 crore from investors. The fresh investment came within months of its  seed round of Rs 30 crores, pointing to the high investor interest in the potential for this sector now.

Many firms have started taking the public route, with current manufacturing leader Waaree Energies raising a Rs 1000 crores from investors when an IPO looked uncertain. The signs clearly indicate that investors believe some of the biggest obstacles to growth are going, or will go soon. If there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that the growth will be led by newer and better marketing from the sector now.

The Vote For Digital

For marketing, the common thread across all solar firms is easily digital marketing. Every single firm we spoke to professed a belief in digital, and going by their actions, this stands out too. Websites that were barely placeholders two years back have been refreshed, with an active social media presence more often than not. For Hardip Singh, at Goldi Solar, digital is an obvious choice because of its reach, measurability and cost-effectiveness. “As a focused solar brand, national media or print can be too expensive for us, so digital has been used.” Singh points out that some brands that have advertised their solar offerings on national TV, like Luminous or perhaps Havells, have done so because solar is part of an umbrella offering of products under the same brand.

Rajat Gupta

Rajat Gupta

Rajat Gupta, General Manager (Marketing Communications) at Goldi Solar adds that the firm has focused on digital as a critical medium for leads as well as brand building. Before they go solar, potential customers not only ensure the decision is worthwhile, once they make up their mind to do so and decide on the brand to go with, they look it up on social media for reviews to be doubly shared. Presence across various media of a firm help establish its credibility. A lead is more likely to be converted into a sale when it chances upon satisfied customer reviews, reads about successful completion of projects and the firm responding to queries from customers.

Studies hold that customers see installing solar rooftops as a major decision. Homeowners take anywhere between six to nine months taking the solar route while potential commercial solar clients may take more than a year. And before they take the plunge, they do extensive research. Content marketing has a significant role to play here, educating customers, empowering them with knowledge, answering questions, busting myths and sharing success stories.

Shreyas Gowda

Shreyas Gowda

Shreyas Gowda, Sr Vice President at Oorjan Cleantech stresses that “Today, India has over 700 million internet users, and that number is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. One of the benefits of living in the modern digital age is the ability to reach millions of people for a fraction of the cost. Email marketing, print and digital media coverage, Google AdWords, and social media marketing can all be used to generate leads”.

Rajni Bhandari, Associate Director (Marketing) at Amp Energy India explains that “In terms of client outreach our preferred mode is to create an omni channel presence. We create inbound interest through our digital presence across our website and our social media accounts. At the same time, we also organise industry events (seminars / webinars), participate in industry forums, lead industry associations and contribute to industry publications which has all meant that Amp Energy India is recognised as a leading renewable energy IPP in the country.”

Oorjan’s Gowda also vouches for the power of referrals, “Referrals are another excellent source of sales leads. Referrals save you time and effort because the interested party already knows your company is well-known.” At Oorjan, referrals are a consequence of “strong customer engagement and client network.”, he adds.

While Oorjan and Solar Labs bank on referrals for lead generation, Rajneesh Singh, Chief Marketing Officer, Rays Power Infra says digital platforms, business networking, and tenders helps it drive in leads. For Amplus Solar too, the state rooftop solar tenders are another source of leads, Ritu Lal adds.

With its clients becoming so digital savvy, it is no surprise that even service providers like Solar Labs, believes in digital, Siddharth Gangal, Founder & CEO, Solar Labs says, “Our major lead capture source is PPC. With proper keyword segmentation and ad copies, we are able to generate around 20+ leads each day with around 10-12 being hot ones. The other ways are cold calling into data taken from various directories, LinkedIn reach outs to our targeted audience, webinars for different geographies, email campaigns for our existing database, publishing 2-3 solar articles each week, and proper SEO work for it. We are getting 5-6 leads organically each day with proper SEO done. We are ranking on the first page for almost all our primary keywords.” “Due to regular posting, they know how much we engage with our audience. With regular email newsletters, we are letting our entire database know what’s happening in the solar industry by providing them with high-quality articles, and news via mail. It makes them believe that we haven’t forgotten them. This increases the credibility when we approach them again in the future.”

That’s a level of digital proficiency many of its clients could learn from SolarLabs.

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