The sun is cool. It gives life to our crops, provides a background for our best Instagram posts, and according to the University of Tennessee, generates 300 times more energy than the annual combined total of all the world’s power plants. And that’s just the light that hits Texas. In one day. For one hour.
The tremendous potential of the sun has created a burst of energy for alternative power producers. Thanks to improvements in technology and investments from world governments, renewable energy has become one of the fastest-growing global industries. In April, a United Nations report painted a bright picture about alternative energy use, proclaiming that new renewable energy installations in 2017 had a record 157 gigawatt capacity – more than double the capacity of new fossil fuel equipment that same year. (Much of that growth came by way of a large bet from China, which invested $126.6 billion on solar power generators and other renewable sources.)
Meanwhile, in the United States, the outlook wasn’t so sunny when it comes to alternative energy use. The White House committed itself to supporting coal and natural gas, de-emphasizing the need for alternative energy solutions. Although a proposed 72% cut to the Department of Energy’s renewable energy programs didn’t make it into the federal budget, U.S. investment in alternative energy did fall 6% last year.
Despite these setbacks, the National Resource Defense Council reports the U.S. renewable resource market is still going strong, valued at more than $200 billion in 2015. (The global market in 2017 is valued at $1.47 trillion and accounts for 12% of the world’s electricity.) The market is only expected to grow in the coming decade, creating more companies and competition – and more opportunity for distributors.
New Markets, New Strategies
A 2018 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that 17% of the country’s electricity came from alternative resources. While hydroelectric and wind power generate the majority of the country’s renewable electricity today, the biggest changes are coming from the solar sector, which is growing faster than every other power source in the world, including traditional sources like fossil fuels and nuclear power. Solar power employs more than 260,000 Americans — three times more than coal. The rapid growth in the solar industry (59% average annual growth, according to Solar Energies Industry Association) means lots of potential new clients.
It can be hard to get your foot in the door with renewable companies, but there are proven strategies that work. Vancouver-based distributor Fairware Promotional Products (asi/191452) has been bringing its sustainability-focused promotional products to energy companies since 2005, and according to co-founder and CEO Denise Taschereau, there’s one major rule: “Be passionate about it,” she says. “If you don’t care, and you just think of it as another market to tap into, it’s not going to work.” According to Taschereau, most solar companies are started by people who care deeply about the environment and sustainability, and look for those same values in their partners. “People in this space are very passionate about the issues,” she says. “It isn’t just a job for them.”
More than many other industries, it’s important to do your homework about the local energy market. Some states have laws that can make it hard for energy startups to eke out a niche (see sidebar on p. 81), and established power companies can put the squeeze on lawmakers to maintain their market position. These regulations can vary by state, so research local laws before making that first call. In addition, coming to a new client with knowledge of their specific challenges will demonstrate your commitment to their same ideals.
In addition to market research, dig into your target’s history. “Follow the client online, in the news and on social media,” suggests Kari Watson, account manager for Toronto-based Top 40 distributor Genumark (asi/204588). Most alternative energy companies are going to have robust online platforms to talk about their projects, benefits and ethos. “They’re always proud of what they’re doing,” Watson says. “Being current with ongoing projects can help you create conversations and give time for forethought on what may tie in with the projects and events.”
Know that while you’re doing research into your prospect, that they’re also doing research into you. “Some of our energy clients say no to potential partners if it’s not the right fit,” Taschereau said. “Just like we [Fairware] don’t work with certain sectors, like oil and gas, for that reason. You can’t take money from the trans-mountain pipeline with one hand and a nature conservation nonprofit with the other.”
While solar is a hot market, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options, and they aren’t all necessarily small, eco-conscious startups. “Every major energy company is, in some respect, trying to branch into these new technologies,” says Doyle Clemmons, senior brand consultant for distributor 2020 Brand Solutions (asi/170720). Clemmons, who’s based in South St. Paul, MN, has worked with energy companies like ExxonMobile and Chevron Phillips for more than 30 years, and says they’re preparing for the future: “They know alternative energy is going to take a percentage of their market. They want to be there when it happens.”
These international corporations may be directly involved in research and development, or they may fund a smaller, external operation. In contrast to the ethically focused operations, the bottom line is the main concern for these corporate giants, and they have no problem spending money. “The best thing you can do is go in with a quality approach,” Clemmons says. “You can’t lowball them. They don’t want cheaper promotional products.”
Of course, the oldest tactics are still the best. “You have to make a personal contact and find a way to prove yourself,” says David Frank, regional sales manager for Simply Solar LLC in Gardena, CA. Frank speaks from experience – before joining Simply Solar, he spent a decade in the promo industry, working with Jack Nadel International (asi/279600) and Built NY. “You want to get to the decision-makers and present something that will really turn their heads.”
Powering Up Promotions
The most effective products will vary based on the type of alternative energy being supplied, the company’s mission and the local market, but there’s one universal truth: “It’s got to be something that’s not going to be immediately thrown into a wastebasket,” says Mark Trotzuk, president and co-founder of Boardroom Custom Clothing (asi/40705) in Vancouver. It’s a bad look for an environmentally conscious company to give out a promotional piece that will go straight to a landfill, so any products they purchase need to be functional and sustainable.
For most of these clients, apparel makes up the biggest chunk of their promotional products budget. Polo shirts, jackets, baseball caps and T-shirts are popular options that sales and installation staff can wear while visiting clients. Apparel also presents a great opportunity to show your eco bona fides. Trotzuk cited garments Boardroom makes out of sustainable materials like organic cotton, recycled shirts and even old plastic bottles. “For the 2010 Winter Olympics, we worked with a major beverage company to transform their bottles into fabric, and made fleece garments from it,” he says. “Inside each shirt was an imprint that said ‘This shirt was made from five soda bottles.’”
Eco-minded products tie perfectly into the branding for renewable energy suppliers, making them the go-to option to present to a customer. “Alternative energy clients want something that has less impact on the environment,” says Trotzuk. Whether you’re looking at tumblers or T-shirts, search for products made with organic fabrics or recycled plastics. Sustainable materials like bamboo feed back into the eco-friendly branding used by most alternative energy suppliers. “If you have two products that are about the same, and one is sustainable and the other is not, they’ll always go for the one that has less impact on the environment,” he adds.
“These clients are looking to walk the talk,” Tascherau says, meaning they’re committed to projecting environmental values. While it’s easy to offer sustainable product choices, crafty distributors can pitch more creative ways to market that message. “We did a fleet of bikes for a solar firm so the installers could do site checks on branded bicycles,” Tascherau recounts. By using bikes instead of cars, the company could save gas, reduce its carbon footprint and stand out from its competition – all of which tied in perfectly with its marketing.
When it comes to other promotional products, alternative energy companies tend to stay away from the typical giveaways (because, you know, landfills), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t buying merchandise. According to Frank, most of Simply Solar’s purchases go toward client gifts. “It’s similar to the real estate industry,” he says, adding that many of their most popular products serve as luxe gifts to new clients. “We install their new equipment, show them how everything works, run them through the paperwork and leave them a thank-you gift,” he explained. “Lately we’ve been gifting clients with private-labeled moscato or champagne.”
Clemmons echoes the need for luxury goods, saying his clients have frequently requested leather items and luggage. “The energy companies are always a cut above in budget. They will always spend more on the unit cost for quality,” he says. Watson, meanwhile, notes that “trending items that are popular at retail have been successful across the board.”
While product needs may differ, tying the product back to the brand is a must. Working with a solar panel company? Show them some solar-powered phone chargers or flashlights. Supporting a wind supplier? Hand fans can remind end-users where they get their power. The trick is to create a connection between the energy company and the item. “It’s not always about the product,” Tascherau says. “It’s about the message.”
What is Alternative Energy?
Traditionally, alternative energy included everything other than the fossil fuels of coal, petroleum and natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), alternative energy today is synonymous with renewable energy, meaning more modern alternatives like nuclear power and fuel cells are left out in the cold. The EIA breaks down alternative energy into five renewable sources:
Biomass: Nearly half of all renewable resources come from biomass. Any form of energy generated from plants or animals is considered a biomass source: wood, ethanol, biodiesel, animal waste and methane gas fall into this category. These materials are often burned for fuel and may be converted into liquid (ethanol) or gas (methane) states before use.
Geothermal: Heat drawn from the earth can be used to produce steam or hot water, in turn serving as heating for buildings or converted into electricity. Geothermal energy sources are clean, safe and reliable, but they rely on access to naturally occurring hot springs, which are rare in the U.S.
Hydropower: One of the oldest sources of power in human history, people have been harnessing running or falling water to power water wheels and mills since at least the Roman Empire. Today, hydropower is the single largest renewable source of electricity generation in the U.S., although its growth is limited by geography of natural bodies of water.
Solar: Solar panels convert heat into electricity, and are one of the most prolific forms of alternative energy. Unlike many other power sources with a primarily commercial use, solar power has a strong retail component, providing panels to consumers and businesses across the country.
Wind: Windmills have been in use since the 9th century, where they powered water pumps and milled grain. Today, windmills are primarily used to generate electricity. Wind power is popular in many parts of the U.S. that can accommodate the intense acreage demands of wind farms.
Kyle A. Richardson is a contributing writer for Advantages.