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Brandable Solar Panels Bring New Meaning to ‘Marketing Sustainability’

As sustainability and branding become more intermingled for forward-thinking brands, being able to turn unattractive solar arrays into marketing assets exemplifies resource efficiency.

Customers increasingly expect their favorite brands to pursue sustainability — for example, by switching to renewable energy. From multinationals to mom-and-pop storefronts, businesses everywhere recognize solar as an important way to boost business image. Massachusetts-based Sistine Solar is helping companies turn large and sometimes unsightly commercial solar installations into a branding value-add.

Sistine’s SolarSkin is a key player in the evolving world of beautifying solar panels. SolarSkin is a perforated vinyl skin that, when applied to solar panels, transforms them from blue or black monoliths to custom statement pieces — transforming solar panels into marketing assets as well as power generators. SolarSkins can be designed to cover an entire solar array or just a portion, and add an additional layer of UV protection to solar panels, extending their life. The robust imagery and UV protection only consume 15 percent of the solar panel output.

Sistine President Ollie Parker says this represents an enticing, multi-purpose option for commercial customers.

“It really has a way of enriching the brand, and that's where we think the bigger opportunity is,” he told Sustainable Brands®. “[Businesses] are really excited about being able to put their brand on the panels and make a statement.”

Most businesses choose solar skins to make an aesthetic statement, build brand awareness, or advertise. Especially for large organizations installing large solar arrays, the costs of the solar skins is well worth the cost and slight loss in energy efficiency.

“Aesthetics is definitely something that’s driving the market,” Parker said.

Designing a solar skin for the long haul was a challenge: It must last the lifetime of the solar panel — 25-30 years. It can’t crack and fade under the relentless sun. It must be vibrant and visible but still allow photons to pass through to the panels beneath. Sistine Solar partnered with a leading vinyl manufacturer to develop the formula, which is now being printed on an in-house printer that applies small dots onto vinyl in customer-specified patterns. Behind each dot is a drop of white ink, allowing even distribution of light without creating excess heat.

Another benefit of solar skins is that the finishes drastically decrease reflectivity — which can be useful in cutting distracting sunlight glare near airports or other light-sensitive areas. And if a brand wants to update its advertising campaign or aesthetic, or if repairs need to be made on solar panels, the skins are easily removable.

The two MIT graduates who founded SolarSkin in 2014 originally targeted the residential market to make solar panels blend into the roofing material. Today, residential customers still represent a fair share of SolarSkin sales; but commercial applications are where they really shine. The economics alone don’t necessarily make sense for a residential home: Homeowners have to pay for the panels, the installation, and the SolarSkins; and they lose 15 percent efficiency to boot. From a marketing perspective, however, the costs could be negligible — especially considering the costs of advertising in space-limited scenarios.

Sistine says it is working with several large, household-name brands; but smaller, nimbler brands including Vermont-based craft distillery WhistlePig are catching on, too. Founded in 2007 (young in whiskey years), the 500-acre former dairy farm is now a pig farm-to-distillery operation with a big focus on sustainability uncommon to the industry — which led the distiller to install a large solar array on top of its barrel barn to help power the farm.

Being a young, innovative whiskey company keeps the female-led team at WhistlePig on their toes, said Liz Rhoades — the company’s Director of Whiskey Operations and R&D.

“That makes us nimble and innovative, and we can create our own path for what whiskey can be,” she told SB.

The Green Mountain State bans roadside billboards in an effort to preserve its scenic, natural beauty. So, WhistlePig turned its panels into a brand-building statement facing a nearby highway — seizing an opportunity for additional branding exposure intermixed with aesthetics and clean energy production.

“It really is a two-for,” Rhoades said. “We get to convert sunshine into cocktails; then, also, it’s aesthetically pleasing. We already have the footprint; we’re already occupying that space. [SolarSkins] blend quite nicely into the top of our barn; but it also allows us to capitalize on the space for branding.”

As a working farm-distillery, WhistlePig needs all the space it can get, so it’s working hard to maximize the utility of every square foot of real estate.

“WhistlePig is really trying to push boundaries in the industry and do things non-traditionally, and sustainability on a working farm is a big component of that,” Rhoades said. “[The SolarSkins] increase the opportunity for more brands to consider creating their business to be a more sustainable business as well.”

Obviously, not every business is as nimble as a young, forward-thinking whiskey brand; but as Rhoades confidently asserted: “Here at WhistlePig, we are at the forefront; and we’re exploring a lot of stuff. We’re keeping our values and our ethos; and I think other people will follow.”

The whiskey world, which banks on quality and standards borne from decades-old practices, isn’t known for embracing innovation; and while some distillers — including Maker’s Mark and Tattersall — are leading the charge on industry sustainability, WhistlePig is also putting itself forward as a model for what a modern, sustainable distillery can be. SolarSkins are just one important way WhistlePig is making best use of its resources and space while improving the bottom line.

“We’re excited to see how other brands adapt and get on the wave as well,” Rhoades said.