Customer Acquisition in Solar: How Design Can Propel It



It is no secret within the solar industry that the hardest challenge facing us is customer acquisition. In this post, the CEO of Sistine shares his thoughts on how a design-centric customer experience can solve that and unlock the mass adoption of solar. From SolarSkin's ability to infuse solar with unparalleled curb appeal, to the industry-first SolarSkin Design Studio that helps installers provide homeowners with a personalized visualization experience in the post COVID-19 virtual selling model, design can help solar progress beyond the early adopters and win over mainstream markets such as the 25 million homes in HOAs.


Sistine Solar was born in the hallways of MIT with a simple yet inspired philosophy that design can accelerate solar from the 2% market penetration represented by early adopters to widespread acceptance in the mass market. The inspiration came from examples like Apple, Tesla, and Nike – in industries as wide ranging as personal computers, cellphones, automotives, and footwear, the formula of quality engineering plus captivating design has consistently proven a blockbuster hit among consumers. Think the launch of the iPhone or the Tesla Roadster or the iconic Air Jordans and how those watershed moments transformed their respective industries. Could we take a leaf out of their books and similarly propel solar to the popular consciousness?


In the years that followed, the Sistine team of engineers and designers built, launched, and commercialized SolarSkin, the only technology in the market that can make solar panels blend in with a homeowner’s roof, no matter what color, pattern, or style. But what we hadn’t anticipated when we started Sistine was what we were really building was not just a beautiful product, but a new way of perceiving and buying solar altogether. We are really in the business of customer experience and rewriting the customer journey. By placing the customer front and center, by stepping into her shoes and seeing the world from her eyes, we got a peek into why exactly customer acquisition in solar is hard and how design can change that.


Solar's Value Proposition: Why It is Inadequate

The fundamental premise on which solar is sold today is that it will result in savings on the homeowner’s electric bill. Coupled with batteries, it can also offer energy security and peace of mind during grid outages. And of course, it is one of the best things one could do for our planet. For those of us in the industry, this trifecta sounds such a winning value offering, an absolute no-brainer, right?


When we step into the customer’s shoes though, we start to see some glaring weaknesses. First, electric bill savings are a latent need, not one homeowners feel the pinch for every day – in the US, when you flick on the light switch, you are pretty much guaranteed to see the bulb turn on, so you are not really craving a different way to get the same end effect. You want the bulb to turn on, it is less important to you where those electrons come from. So, while solar is viewed favorably by many homeowners, it doesn't connect strongly enough to make them want it on their home. We see the best proof for this in the industry – the overwhelming majority of new orders come from existing customer referrals, while the ROI on outbound marketing to non-early adopters is poor. Solar as a product just hasn’t connected with their psyche.


Second, customers experience significant decision fatigue because they get pitched by different installers and every single one is selling them the same value proposition: bill savings. Multiplicity of choice is a good thing if there truly is choice. But, when everyone offers more or less the same selection of panels, the same proposal of lowering costs, the same claims to warranty and service, either the homeowner gets overwhelmed and puts off the decision or it becomes a race to the bottom to win her over with the cheapest offering. Neither is a good solution for installers.


Third, putting solar on your home is not a light decision. From the homeowner’s perspective, it falls into the same category as any other home improvement project, such as designing the patio or landscaping the yard or repainting the walls. Across all those activities, homeowners like to be involved, like to have a selection of choices, and care deeply about curb appeal. Successful products need to offer them personalization and customization, two critical elements sadly lacking in solar.


In short, solar fails to connect with the mass market because it does not grab their attention, it relies heavily on a singular value proposition that resonates only with the early adopter segment, and it does not delight the customer with a personalized, customized buyer experience. Here is a litmus test – when was the last time a homeowner felt as thrilled about the process of going solar as she did about shopping for a cellphone or decorating her home?


How Sistine is rewriting the value proposition At Sistine, we believe that to make solar solar connect with every homeowner, not just the early adopters, we have to provide them an experience, not merely a product. A car buyer doesn’t conduct a payback analysis before deciding whether to buy one. Instead, they long for the pride in owning one, the thrill of sitting behind the wheel and stepping on the pedal, the freedom of rolling down the windows and driving to the destination of their dreams. At Sistine, we think a lot about the emotions that solar ought to evoke in customers because we believe that products that endure are the ones that speak to consumers' hearts. We visualize the pride homeowners get when they pull into their driveway and look up at their gorgeous roof, the joy they feel when they take in the colors that define their home, the admiration of their neighbors that they appreciate, the security and peace of mind that their home provides them, and the aspiration every detail in it represents. And we place solar within that context, consciously recognizing that it is not a product the homeowner purchases once, but an experience she enjoys rather than endures on a daily basis for the next 20+ years.


SolarSkin: The Most Efficient Aesthetic Solar Tech

That intense focus on the customer led us to develop SolarSkin, the patented overlay technology that transforms traditional blue or black solar panels into ones that blend in harmoniously with the homeowner’s roof, no matter what color, pattern, or style. It is the most efficient aesthetic solar technology there is in the market, achieving efficiencies of 18-20%+ depending on the underlying panel technology (for comparison, industrial-looking blue/black solar panels in the market range from 16 to 22% while the closest aesthetic competition, the Tesla Roof, clocks in at 8 to 10%). And, SolarSkin acts as a protective layer, shielding the panels from the harsh forces of temperature and UV impact.


A handful of the several SolarSkin-adorned homes from around the country


The SolarSkin Design Studio: Redefining Buyer Experience in the Post COVID-19 World

The more we started thinking about experience, the more we realized that we should think not just about the emotions the homeowner feels after installing solar, but also the emotions in the process leading up to the purchase decision. That is why we are launching the SolarSkin Design Studio, the industry’s only visualization portal where a homeowner can fully and truly personalize her solar purchase. In the place of a commodity offering, the studio provides the homeowner the ability to customize any combination of panel technology and aesthetics. In lieu of the decision fatigue she feels from multiple 10+ page proposals from installers, she now navigates an elegant, intuitive interface where with a few clicks or taps, she can have an estimate in under 5 minutes. Instead of generic cookie cutter proposals, she receives high fidelity color renderings of SolarSkin on her home, so she knows exactly what her home will look like with its addition. Again, the central theme running through these is giving the homeowner an experience filled with delight, clarity, and inspiration, without sacrificing any of the information she seeks. In the post COVID-19 world of remote sales, a virtual yet personalized experience like the SolarSkin Design Studio is where the future of solar lies.


A preview video of the SolarSkin Design Studio

Now, I fully expect the VP of Sales at a solar installation company to still be skeptical of the power of a design-centric experience. I expect them to quickly dismiss aesthetics as a niche product, as just a “nice-to-have”, and as a desire restricted to the affluent. And I understand that because all of that is true when they are focused on just the early adopters of solar (let us face it, a technology that has been adopted by just 2 million homes in the US is still languishing in the early adopter market). But every single one of those objections falls apart like a house of cards when you look at any industry that has achieved true mass adoption. Cars, computers, cellphones, apparel, footwear, roofing, I could go on and on – in every one of those industries, aesthetics is a primary product differentiator, a key consideration among buyers, and is sought after by buyers from all economic backgrounds. Because, good design and the emotions that it evokes are a universal and integral part of the human experience. But let me illustrate my point with a concrete example.


How SolarSkin is unlocking the next 25 million homes

Within the solar industry, we are guilty of a fair amount of navel gazing. But when we expand our horizons beyond the 2% market penetration and consider how we normalize solar in all homes, we come across an undeniable statistic: 1 in 3 homes in the US is part of homeowners associations (HOAs), where aesthetics is often a key barrier to solar adoption. A DOE SunShot study found that there are over 25 million homes that fall in this category. Even in states that have solar-friendly HOA laws, there is significant freedom provided to HOA boards to place “reasonable restrictions” on solar. This often leads to clashes between residents and boards that at worst result in dissuaded homeowners who abandon their plans to go solar or at best unsatisfactory compromises such as restricting solar to their north-facing back roofs.


SolarSkin solves this issue. None illustrates this better than our customer Joey Myles, whose SolarSkin experience was featured in the news. For over two years, Joey and the board at Franklin Trace HOA explored ways in vain to allow solar on his street-facing roof without compromising the community’s property appearance criteria. Eventually, Joey came across SolarSkin and it was approved by his board. In the time since outfitting his panels with SolarSkin and moving them to the street facing roof, Joey has been enjoying a 54% increase in his energy production. He has been so thrilled with his experience that he regularly advocates SolarSkin to local Solarize programs and HOAs.


Joey is not an isolated example. SolarSkin has a track record of winning approvals from HOAs and historic districts in multiple states – CA, D.C., SC, to name just a few. Every community SolarSkin unlocks represents anywhere from 100 to 500 homes or more. From a cost of customer acquisition perspective, the equation is simple. You can decrease unit cost of customer acquisition (COCA) by decreasing the numerator (the $ spent) and/or increasing the denominator (the number of customers). Unlocking HOAs represents a massive increase in the denominator, growing solar’s addressable market, decreasing unit COCA, and making solar as mainstream as cars and TVs. With 350,000+ HOAs around the country, we are just getting started.


In the end, picture this little thought experiment. There will be a day in the future, perhaps 10 years from now, perhaps 20 years from now, when solar will be as ubiquitous in every American home as a front yard and a garage. In that picture, do you see blue solar panels populating every home, or do you see a plethora of colors curated to each home’s aesthetic? If you see the former, count how many roofing shingle colors you see the next time you visit your local Home Depot. If design really weren’t a fundamental consideration for homeowners, wouldn’t every shingle manufacturer be incentivized to lower costs by producing cookie cutter grey shingles and every home be adorned with one? It isn’t, and neither will solar be. The future of solar lies in good design and in a customer experience centered on the emotions that design alone can evoke.


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