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.

Using Marketing to Manage the Acceptance of Recycled Water

Marketing recycled water by colouring the pipes purpleRecent droughts across the globe have motivated a lot of technological innovation in water services. One common strategy to manage water, commonly used by Australian water utilities, is to add a third pipe system. In these areas, customers have access to drinking water, sewerage and recycled water. The reasoning for this development is that access to non-potable recycled water will offset the need to use drinking water for toilet flushing, gardening and similar applications.

While this is an interesting development that seems like a great solution to water shortages, from a marketing perspective, there are some issues with the introduction of dual water supply into houses.

Firstly, following the principles of the Invisible Water Utility, the quality of service can be measured by the amount of time a customer needs enjoying the service. Having two separate taps for two different purposes reduces service quality because of the effort required in owning a dual supply. However, it can be argued that sustainability trumps convenience and that recycled water is necessary. If that is the case, how can we use marketing principles to maximise service quality in recycled water?

Marketing Recycled Water

The introduction of non-potable water to houses goes against the grain of what water utilities have achieved over the past 150 years. Recycled water poses a health risk to through accidental consumption caused by faulty plumbing. To mitigate this risk, water utilities and regulators have developed very strict regulations with regards to the installation of the purple pipe.

In marketing, the use of perception is a standard method to influence consumer attitudes and behaviours. What can water utilities learn from this?

Recycled water is inspected more than gas and electricity

In the state of Victoria, all recycled water installations are inspected three to four times before being used by customers. Even after people have moved into their house, they will receive visits from recycled water inspector on a regular basis. This regime of inspections sends decreases service quality because of the inconvenience, but more importantly sends a wrong message to users of recycled water by emphasising risk rather than the opportunity.

Third Pipe System

Third Pipe System (Source: Victorian Building Authority).

Why does recycled water need to be inspected so often when the potentially deadly electricity and gas supplies are regulated using a far less strict regime? The health risk to a faulty electricity or gas connection is exponentially higher than the danger of consuming recycled water. The rigorous inspection regime communicates to customers that they are dealing with a potentially lethal substance, which is of course not the case. This strategy also has the risk of lowering the acceptance of potential future potable re-use of sewerage.

A more subtle way used to manage the risk of recycled water is the distinctive lilac colour used for all recycled water plumbing. This colour signal is a very clear branding of the service, which is easy to communicate, without exaggerating the risks.

Can we extend this principle and add a non-toxic, environmentally friendly colour to the water? Can we create lilac recycled water? Unfortunately, this is not an option because it would reduce the acceptability for recycled water used in toilets and washing machines. The advertising language surrounding toilets is about sparkling white bowls, without any trace of colour.

Perhaps another strategy to manage the risk of recycled water being consumed by people is to add a pungent taste to the water. Adding offensive smell is the approach used in natural gas supply, where an odorant is added to enable users to detect leaks. A bad taste can be readily associated with health risk. Adding a strong flavour to recycled water would prevent any user from drinking the water and enables detecting cross connections.

Using this simple technique reduces the need for extensive inspection regimes and increases the detection likelihood of plumbing issues because every customer automatically becomes a continuous monitoring device, rather than relying on regular formal inspections.