Engineering Facts v. Marketing Shenanigans

Engineering Facts v. Marketing Shenanigans

Metaphor image of who is in charge – the elephant or the rider? (Haidt, 2006)

So why are we explaining this? Well if you are looking at this you are thinking of spending several thousand pounds on something, so it is important to be cool and calm about this decision and not be swayed by marketing.

Simply put, the average customer is susceptible to marketing and then makes a purchasing decision based on that. Decades of research have been done evidencing that the human brain has this uncanny ability to make up stories to justify and rationalise actions to itself. For more information on this please feel free to read:

(HAIDT, J., 2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books. Chapter One available from: http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/happiness-hypothesis-ch1.pdf

The keyword here is “Confabulation”, which is a beautiful word… whereby the brain makes up stories to justify events, decisions and desires… the key thing about this is that the person’s brain has no conscious intention to deceive… yet it does. It might be considered that the person has a gut desire to buy a product and so the brain is giving justifications as to why it should…

 

 

 

 

We have probably all seen an advert for a shampoo product for something where they make amazing claims like “87% of women agreed” and in the small print at the bottom it says *16 women surveyed…. And there is no evidence that they are not biased in some way. So, as a rational person should I make a purchasing decision based on 12 people’s opinions whom I have never met and might be biased in some way? No!

What does the brain see? “87% OF ALL WOMEN AGREE.” So, if you were thinking of buying a hair product this may swing you to decide “If it is good enough for 9/10 women it must be ok for me too”.

This method of encouraging you to agree with something can be adapted by threatening risk…sort of a double whammy. “If you do not do this then….” As humans we evolved to avoid risk, and something called the “Precautionary Principle” kicks in which roughly translates to “I had better not just in case”. This may mean that whilst you would prefer NOT to choose that product over another because you believe something that they are telling you because it SOUNDS plausible you are now investing into it emotionally which allows your risk management function to chime in saying “Well if they believe it then I better analyse it for risk…”

Clever marketing throws this in a customer’s direction to try and eliminate the competition by disincentivising them to look at other options and all of this occurs because the customer does not have enough knowledge about the products to decide on the facts.

 

There are two different types of knowledge when it comes to making decisions and they are tacit knowledge and systematic knowledge.

Tacit means that you already know this information at an almost gut-level – you are very comfortable with it and confident of its truth, but it may be hard to explain to another person by writing it down and/or verbalising it, potentially due to its complexity, however, that does not invalidate its truth.

Systematic knowledge is around a body of truths or facts that are systematically arranged and show the operation of general or specific laws often of the physical or material world – this information has been gained through observation and experimentation.

The problem with marketing, especially of complex technical products is that the person who is looking to make a purchasing decision needs to gain systematic knowledge on a technical issue to the level of having tacit knowledge before being confident in making a decision. This may potentially take a long time and require technical skillsets that the customer just does not have. Most fear-based marketing is counting on the concept that you have to trust someone as you are not going to do this yourself. So, the key question is “Who do you trust?”.

 

A home when analysed by a Building Services Engineer is considered as a holistic whole. It may have solar, battery, EV car charging and be heated by an ASHP or under-floor heating and so the solar is part of an integrated design not a standalone product.

When it comes to solar, buildings and energy our answer would be someone who is professionally qualified in this field rather than just an electrician, who whilst vital in the installation process is not necessarily going to think holistically about the flow of energy around your site nor all of the usage profiles of it. First and foremost, they are good at electrical installations. The person who you are looking for is a building services engineer, professionally accredited, ideally with a specific background in your type of product integration and with both surveying and system design skills. For example they may be members of CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers) who are the standard setter and authority on building service engineering in the UK and potentially also have ASHRAE membership (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration & Air-Conditioning Engineers) who are an international professional association committed to Sustainable Technology in the built environment. CIBSE is UK specific and ASHRAE is a global accreditation, they are very similar in intention but the CIBSE one gives specific Chartered Engineer status to UK members.

Let’s have a look at this type of marketing in action when a customer does not have the help of a building services engineer to interpret the language and what this could mean to their understanding and subsequent actions.

First and foremost, before we do so we wish to make clear that whilst this company’s website names a panel manufacturer, we are in no way saying that this brand panel is of anything but the highest quality nor questioning its design, nor warranty. This conversation and article are around the language used by the sales company trying to push this product and not explain that other equal options may exist.

 

“A SunPower system generates more energy…” Does it generate more energy? Please prove this and allow the customer to make up their own minds. Is this the industry’s best warranty? I would suggest that potentially LG may have something to say about this and that proof should be given. https://www.lg.com/uk/business/solar/neon/neon-r

Stating that you believe a technology is the most advanced available today is all well and good (prove it please) and saying that you think you remove 85% of the reason other non-similar design panels may break is great advertising and may even be true. However, what is the actual statistical chance of another manufacturers panel breaking? What is the mean time between failure? If it is low, then does it matter?

Reducing 85% of the risk of an event occurring that very rarely occurs in the first place should lead you to ask what is the chance in reality? Please see TUV Sud accreditation testing in practice at JA Solar – golf ball size hail at 60mph. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2RGZzAw3_c

The chance of corrosion and breakage of a well-built tier 1 panel such as an LG Neon R or JA Solar Mono is vanishingly small in normal operation. Anecdotally I can personally say of all the hundreds of domestic installations of varying panels brands that I have been involved with I can only think of ONE faulty panel.

Another thing to note is the use of the word “conventional”, they show in their linked video further down the web page what appears to be the cheapest and most basic poly wafer cell that is outside of its protective laminated coating and is not on a protective back sheet which in normal circumstances it would sit sandwiched within when inside a panel frame – They then destroy an exposed product… the point that I am trying to make is that in reality in standard conditions the cells in a normal panel are NEVER exposed to such stresses as someone trying to bend them in half when they are not laminated inside their protective coatings. In reality, most panels will have the same rating of circa 5400 Pa pressure resistance as rated by TUV Sud or another reputable testing accreditation firm.

 

We all know it is an illusion but it still fools us…

Finally, we consider the statement of “…over 25 years they will generate up to 60% more energy…”. You WANT to believe that you can get 60% more energy and this statement gives you the illusion of gain compared to real-world practice. This sentence has the keywords “up to” which should fire off alarm bells as it is stating variability and specifically that this is achieved in this case by assuming that another manufacturers brand is not actually working at all due to breakage. Nor once a breakage is identified (if it happens) is it replaced within the PV installation during the 25-year term mentioned. This is not something that any PV system owner is ever going to do, especially if they have SolarEdge monitoring which would clearly evidence the fault if it occurred.

Why would an owner be notified of a fault by their monitoring system and say:

“Yep, I can see that it is definitely faulty, but you know what? I don’t think I will replace it under warranty”

As this is what that statement of “will generate up to 60% more energy…” not “may generate” but “will generate” is pre-supposed upon in this statement. The answer is no… you would fix it, in which case where is the 60% difference being generated from? It isn’t is the answer… If you put two systems of the same output size in kWp terms on the same roof with the same degradation curves (which are still estimates) and they both work for the same term then you should generate the same outputs within some small fraction of variability.

They are correct in that most panels have some variation to each other but if you take top quality tier 1 manufactured products then you have a standard industry expected lifespan of 40 years for all of them with a considered degradation of around 0.4% p.a. These are the values that investment companies are using when installing solar farm for financial modelling purposes.

 

There are Government regulations that are designed to protect consumers but in the current age of ending austerity, so many departments have been gutted that enforcing anything is potentially a very hit and miss procedure. A copy of the regulations that should be enforced is available at:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/284446/oft979.pdf

 

In the case of this particular web page it is possible that a person might choose to comment that this web page may allegedly fall foul of 2 of the 4 main categories:

  • Misleading practices, like false or deceptive messages, or leaving out important information.

 

  • Aggressive sales techniques that use harassment, coercion or undue influence. For a practice to be unfair under these rules, they must harm, or be likely to harm, the economic interests of the average consumer. For example, when a shopper makes a purchasing decision, he or she would not have made had he or she been given accurate information or not put under unfair pressure to do so.

 

Specifically, items 9 and 11 could be considered to apply:

  1. Overpromise, under deliver.
  2. Scare tactics. Making a materially inaccurate claim concerning the nature and extent of the risk to the personal security of the consumer or his or her family if the consumer does not purchase the product.

    Lovable Rogues are still rogues – buyer beware.

So, where does this all leave us? A company uses 143 words to present a clear and compelling statement of why this product is good (about which I have no issue as it is a perfectly fine product I believe) and how you have huge risk if you choose any other product. In doing so they use a style that may lay them open to prosecution under the Unfair Trading Regulations. Why would they market in this way? Because it works. Whereas I had to use over 2000 words to explain why there are issues with this marketing.

Which set of information is easier to believe? Theirs is short and punchy, simple, appeals to your risk/rewards, emotional decision making…. The other, whilst being the truth, requires thought, education, maybe research, comparisons etc. Essentially it is requiring intellectual effort and education and resources that the customer may not have.

All we can say here at Poweri is that we like to work with customers to find the best solution for their needs at the lowest cost and time and time again we find how important it is to have qualified and experienced building services engineers on hand to cut through the marketing double talk that other companies promote. Of key importance is that we are product agnostic and do not have a particular product that we wish to peddle and we solve engineering problems rather than try to sell products or specific brands.

Remember, if something sounds too good to be true then is probably is… if so then go find a qualified expert to interpret the engineering and products and give an unbiased opinion on how it meets your needs.

 

This blog was written by:

John Rowlatt – Energy Consultant.

MSc Energy & Sustainable Development (Dist.), PGCert, PGDip, CEng – Graduand, mCIBSE, mASHRAE, DEA, GDA.

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