Resolving the Consumer Involvement Paradox in Tap Water Services


IWA World Water Congress Poster

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The fact that water is essential to life suggests that consumers of tap water have a high level of involvement with the service. Contrary to this common-sense intuition, practitioner experience and literature states that tap water is a low-involvement service.1 However, the level of consumer involvement with tap water services has until now, not been empirically verified. This poster presents empirical evidence of the level of involvement consumers in urban environments have with tap water as a service and proposes a solution to the apparent involvement paradox.

Consumer involvement is defined as “a person’s perceived relevance of the object based on inherent needs, values, and interests”.2 The involvement construct is necessary to water utilities as it has been found to be linked to a consumer’s willingness to pay for services and to their perceptions of the service’s quality.3

The data collected for this study suggests that consumers have a medium to high level of involvement with tap water. Further analysis shows that water-consumers rate their cognitive involvement with tap water as great but that they have a significantly lower level of affective involvement. This research has implications for the way water utilities engage with their customers.


The most commonly used methodology to measure involvement is the Personal Involvement Inventory.4 This scale has two dimensions: cognitive involvement (importance, relevance, meaning, value and need) and affective involvement (involvement, fascination, appeal, excitement and interest).

The on-line survey used for this research consisted of ten semantic differential items as defined in the inventory (Figure 1). Customers of water utilities in Australia (n=193) and American Twitter users (n=70) completed the survey.

Figure 1 – Personal Inventory Index survey tool with items in random order.

Figure 1 – Personal Inventory Index survey tool with items in random order.


A total of 263 fully completed surveys were collected, with a mean standard error over all items of less than 2% (Figure 2). The Personal Involvement Inventory is determined by the total of individual item scores, resulting in values between 10 and 70 for each respondent (Figure 3). For a complete analysis of the results, go to

Figure 2 – Distribution of Responses.

Figure 2 – Distribution of Responses.

Figure 3 – Histogram of involvement index.

Figure 3 – Histogram of involvement index.


The data suggests that tap water cannot be considered a low-involvement service, as previously theorised. The median level of involvement of 57 is located in the upper quartile of the involvement range. However, although respondents mostly agree that tap water is important from a rational point of view, at an emotional level they are much less involved with the service. Their level of cognitive involvement (Mdn=34) is significantly higher than their level of affective involvement (Mdn=24, p<.0001).

The paradoxical situation that experience from practitioners and the literature considers consumer involvement for an essential product to be small can be resolved by the difference between affective and cognitive involvement. Tap water as an essential product will logically attract a very high level of cognitive involvement because life in the developed world without water is unthinkable. However, as a non-branded, undifferentiated, monopolistic service, the level of affective involvement it attracts will be significantly lower.

Figure 4 – Bottled water companies focus on increasing affective involvement.

Figure 4 – Bottled water companies focus on increasing affective involvement.

Research in other industries shows that involvement is predictive of the consumers’ willingness to pay for the service and of their perception of its quality.5 The higher the level of involvement, the greater their willingness to pay and their perceptions of quality. Commercial organisations use this to their advantage by maximising the level of consumer involvement through branding and advertising. This strategy is used effectively in the bottled-water industry. Manufacturers focus on enhancing the emotional aspects of their product rather than on improving the cognitive aspects (Figure 4). Water utilities, however, tend to use a reverse strategy and emphasise the cognitive aspects of tap water—the pipes, plants and pumps—rather than trying to create an emotional relationship with their consumers.


This research shows that consumer involvement with tap water is a two-dimensional construct: customers have both a cognitive and an affective relationship with tap water. Cognitively, customers naturally agree that tap water is essential, but their emotional relationship with it is much weaker.

Consumer involvement has been linked to business performance and can be influenced by building a strong brand. Therefore, water utilities can change their customers’ affective involvement with the service by emphasising its intangible benefits rather than the means by which it is produced. The example below shows how water utilities provide not only a physical product but also rewarding experiences. Having a shower is more than a hygiene ritual: it is an incubator for creative thinking.

Water utilities should celebrate the intangible benefits of water to improve relationships with customers.

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  1. Babakus (1993). Measuring service quality in the public utilities. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 1(1), 33–49. doi:10.1300/J054v01n01_04; Fagan (2011). Elixir: A Human History of Water. London: Bloomsbury Pub Ltd.; Vloerbergh et al. (2007). Assessing consumer preferences for drinking water services. Methods for water utilities. Techneau.; Watson, Viney & Schomaker (2002). Consumer attitudes to utility products: A consumer behaviour perspective. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 20(7), 394–404. 

  2. Zaichkowsky (1985). Measuring the involvement construct. Journal of Consumer Research, 12(3), 341–352. 

  3. Cohen (2000). Consumer involvement–driving up the cost. Consumer Policy Review, 10(4), 122–125; Espejel, Fandos & Flavián (2009). The influence of consumer involvement on quality signals perception: An empirical investigation in the food sector. British Food Journal, 111(11), 1212–1236. 

  4. Zaichkowsky, J. L. (1994). The personal involvement inventory: Reduction, revision, and application to advertising. Journal of Advertising, 23(4), 59. 

  5. Op cit. note 3. 

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