Communicating Water’s Value: Book Review

The literature on managing water utilities is dominated by technical tomes on how to implement the latest engineering developments to improve services. Engineers often see marketing as peripheral to their quest to provide a reliable and safe water supply. It is, therefore, a delight to read a book on how to improve services in water utilities using marketing techniques common in other industries.

Communicating Water’s Value: Talking Points, Tips & Strategies by Melanie Goetz is based on a sound basis of years of experience, backed by the latest scientific findings in behavioural economics, neuromarketing and related disciplines. This book is by no means a nerdy academic treatise. The countless vividly written examples from Melanie’s experience in working with utilities will appeal to water utility professionals and place the theory in context.

The book delves into the non-rational (a term I prefer above ‘irrational’) aspects of human psychology and explains how the latest marketing techniques from the competitive commercial world can be applied to enhance the value proposition of water utilities.

Marketing has earned itself a bad name for being deceptive and manipulative, which is one of the reasons it is not often practised in public services. Melanie’s book shows, however, that good marketing can tap into the forces of psychology and be used for good instead of evil.

Melanie recognised in the book that her work is “preaching to the choir”. This book should be read by engineers, economists, accountants and all other professions that are usually at a distance from the customer interface. As pointed out in the latter part of the book, innovation can only arise from positive deviance. Daring to be different and break the shackles of tradition will not be easy in an industry dominated by traditional thinking.

The Value of Water

Reading this book, I latched on to one little phrase: “We do not sell water, we sell status—we sell a solution for thirst”.  When a utility recognises that they do not sell water, but the benefits that water provides, they are on their way to maximise the value perception held by their customers. Thinking of water as simply the product they supply, instead of the benefits it provides is an example of marketing myopia, a form of short-sightedness that can only be fixed by using marketing glasses.

My version of this is: “We don’t sell water, we sell experiences“. We sell good ideas (in the shower), we sell initiate moments (having a bath with someone you love), we sell personal fulfilment (gardening) and so on. Status comes into play only with conspicuous purchases, such as a pool.

When looking at a water utility using marketing lenses we see the service as the customers perceive it. Not the way customers might consciously understand water, but subconsciously. In Communicating Water’s Value Melanie keeps reminding us of the psychological subtleties involved in managing the attitudes and behaviours of customers.

Communicating Water’s Value: Talking Points, Tips & Strategies

This book is a great read for every water utility professional that wants to practice some positive organisational deviance and start to think differently and increase the value proposition of customers. Not by investing millions in new gadgets, but by simply levering human psychology.

Business Essentials for Utility Engineers: Marketing and engineering

Surfing the web to find new material for literature review can sometimes reveal unexpected surprises. When looking for “tap water marketing” related references I found a book titled Business Essentials for Utility Engineers by Richard Brown. I immediately proceeded to purchase a copy and am impressed with the comprehensive nature of the book, and I highly recommend it to all engineers working in the utility industry.

The author does, however, suffer from the type of marketing myopia seen in utilities and most commonly in engineers.1 In the preface Richard Brown writes:

This book does not address a variety of topics that are typically covered in a business curriculum. Examples include strategy, marketing, organizational design, human resources, and business ethics. These topics are important in a general sense, but tend to be peripheral to most issues facing utility engineers.

With this statement, Brown moves marketing to the periphery of utility engineering, while moving economics and accounting in the spotlight through his book. The content of the book does, however, tell a different story. It contains over five hundred mentions of customers — more than one per page on average. While Brown thinks he excluded marketing; he made it a central element of the book.

The issue at hand here is a misunderstanding regarding the scope of marketing. Marketing is not selling or advertising. In essence, marketing is: “customer satisfaction engineering”,2 the process of providing value to customers. Marketing cannot be moved to the periphery of utility engineering. It is central to any organisation that seeks to add value to the lives of their customers. To move utility engineering to that space, we need to move from asset performance to customer experience.


  1. I am not against engineers, after all; I am one myself  

  2. Kotler, P., & Levy, S. J. (1969). Broadening the concept of marketing. Journal of Marketing, 33, 10–15. 

People don’t care much about tap water

Women in Ethiopia carrying water. No acess to tap water

Women in Ethiopia carry water from a lake back to their homes. Source: waterencyclopedia.com.

Access to clean tap water is considered a human right as without it life would be impossible. But although water falls free from the sky, getting the water you need is not for free. In countries without reticulated water, people sometimes spend hours each day obtaining their water. In more developed countries obtaining water has been outsourced and people pay water utility companies to deliver clean water right at their doorstep. Given the importance of water for sustaining life you might think that most people care very much about tap water.

Consumer Involvement

In marketing, consumer involvement is the construct used to measure how much consumers care about a product or service.1 It is measured by asking people to tick a box on a scale between two extremes.

Personal Involvement Inventory (Zaichowsky 1994).

Personal Involvement Inventory (Zaichowsky 1994).

In June last year I created an online survey to measure the Personal Involvement Inventory (PII) for tap water and invited people to complete it via Twitter.2

Consumer Involvement in Tap Water

In total 77 responses were received (40% female, 60% male). Respondents were also asked whether they have a garden and whether they are professionally involved in tap water. The lowest possible PII score is 10 and the highest 50. The average score of this survey was 40.6, which is quite high—more than previously reported for mouthwash, but less then the involvement people have with cars.3 Interestingly, there were no significant differences based on gender, having a garden or being a water professional—all groups valued water equally.

The Personal Involvement Inventory has two dimensions: it measures a cognitive (rational) and an affective (emotional) involvement. The average cognitive involvement with tap water was 23.6—almost the maximum score of 25. This is not surprising given the importance of water. Affective involvement with water was much lower at 17.2. The difference between the two is statistically significant: t(76)=13.42, p < 10-6. However, also in the sub-factors there is no significant difference between genders, gardening or profession.

Twitter is, however, not a representative sample and most tweets seem to originate from the younger generations. The research  can also not be considered a representative sample as the invitation to complete the survey was re-tweeted mainly by water related accounts. It can be assumed the people that follow these accounts have a higher level of involvement than regular tap water users. There is, however, no reason to assume that the relative difference between cognitive and affective involvement will be different in other population segments.

Conclusion

What we can tentatively conclude from these results is that our emotional relationship with water is much lower than our rational understanding of its importance.

These results can have implications for how tap water is marketed by water utilities. Involvement is an important indicator that is related to willingness to pay. The more we are involved with a product or service, the more we are willing to pay.4 Smart marketers thus use strategies to increase the level of involvement.

The reasons for the low level of involvement have to be sought in the marketing myopia of tap water service providers. Some have even argued that tap water managers are lazy marketers.To increase the level of involvement the message from water utilities needs to become more emotive, following the example of bottled water companies.


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

  2. Thanks to@DrinkTapDotOrg, @Help4SmallWater, @MagicTony and @cfishman for the help in getting respondents. 

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

  4. Cohen, M. (2000). Consumer involvement–driving up the cost. Consumer Policy Review, 10(4), 122–125