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.

Weasel words in water utilities: Sanitising public language

Weasel words are often used by demagogues, politicians and marketers to disguise what they are saying. A tax becomes a levy, we no longer just live, we have a lifestyle and sacking people becomes downsizing. They are weasel words because they suck the meaning out of language, just like a weasel sucks eggs.1

This type of language is, unfortunately also familiar with water utilities. What used to be a sewage treatment plant is now a water reclamation facility, removing any reference to its origins. Sewerage Sludge is magically transformed to a ‘biosolid’, ensuring that the average person has no idea what its provenance is. These new terms suck all meaning from the original words.

Sanitising public language

In a recent article in Water21, the magazine for the International Water Association, John Baten proposed to take ‘evolve’ the language used by water professionals to even deeper levels of befuddlement, as evidenced by the table below.

Weasel words in the water utility sector

Weasel words in the water utility sector.2

Some of these suggestions are even sucking the life out of the existing weasel words. To call a sewage treatment plant a ‘renew enterprise’ is confusing and deceptive. The regeneration—excuse me for using one of these terms—of treated effluent to Star-rated water is a total obfuscation of reality and removes water users even further away from the problems in our water supply chain.

Having said this, a careful choice of words is important. Empirical research demonstrated that framing ‘treated wastewater’ as ‘recycled water’ changed perceptions of the product by consumers and increased their willingness to use and to pay for the service.3

The removal of any reference to poo in the case of treated sewage circumvents the Yuck Factor—the psychological mechanism that prevents people from accepting treated sewage as drinking water. But this is nothing more than a cheap magic trick that will not be able to deceive water users into accepting what they know to be the truth. An example of direct communication about sewerage is the Twitter feed of Daniel Gerling, who is preparing a book on the cultural history of excrement. His language is clear and straightforward, and the impact of his word choice forces people to face the issue.

This type of language will be more harmful than helpful in our industry. Only by calling things by their proper name can we educate consumers about the water cycle and move forward in securing water for the future.

  1. Don Watson, Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words (Knopf, 2004). 

  2. Baten III, J. (2014). One Water: Uniting around a new water language. Water 21, (February), 12–16. 

  3. Menegaki, A. N., Mellon, R. C., Vrentzou, A., Koumakis, G., & Tsagarakis, K. P. (2009). What’s in a name: Framing treated wastewater as recycled water increases willingness to use and willingness to pay. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30(3), 285–292. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2008.08.007

The Seven Ps of Tap Water Marketing

My research area is tap water marketing. When I explain my dissertation topic to other professionals and academics, it usually raises some question marks. Tap water is, after all, an undifferentiated essential service provided by monopolists. Water utility professionals don’t understand my drive to research this area because they are focused on the technological aspects of tap water. Marketing scholars struggle with the concept because it is a monopolistic service—there is no need for customer retention. There are distinct differences between the way water professionals—mostly engineers like myself—and marketing scholars and practitioners view water utilities.

In marketing several frameworks exist to analyse organisations, with the marketing mix (the famous 4 Ps) as the most well known.1 To allow for the complexity of services, some scholars have added three more aspects. The Marketing Mix is the marketer’s lens to view at water utilities is: “Product, Place, Price, Promotion, People, Process and Physical Evidence”.2

The engineer’ s version of the seven Ps of water supply are: “Pressure and Purity through Plants, Pumps and Pipes, for People”. Yes, there are only six here, but my inspiration did not reach any further than that.

Marketers and engineers come from very different thought worlds. In my work, I aim to build a bridge—I am an engineer after all—between the physical sciences that dominate the decision-making processes in water utilities and marketing theories based upon the social sciences.

An example of how this difference is expressed is that water utility professionals often focus on the tangible aspects of the service, while marketers would look more broadly at the intangible aspects and make them tangible. Many water utilities show pumps, pipes and plants on their website. It would be much better, however, to communicate the intangible aspects of the service as it will increase your customers’ perception of the value they receive from their water utility. These four images below were created to demonstrate this point of view.

  1. Borden, Neil H., (1964). The Concept of the Marketing Mix. Journal of Advertising Research

  2. Booms, Bernard H.; Bitner, Mary Jo (1981). Marketing Strategies and Organization Structures for Service Firms. Marketing of Services. American Marketing Association: 47–51. 

Communicating the Value Proposition: Tap Water Advertising

We all have those moments where you have an excellent idea while having a shower. This morning it dawned on me that water utilities don’t sell water; they sell experiences.

Water is a service with a high level of tangibility. The consumer can see, feel, taste, hear, but hopefully not smell the water. Tap water is, what marketers call, high in experience qualities.1 These are the aspects of a service that consumers experience while consuming the service. The value of water is, however, not located in the physical qualities of the water—the value of water is located in the need the water, as expressed in these mock advertisements.

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Tap Water Advertising

Marketing wisdom dictates that communication for services that are highly tangible, like water, should focus on the intangible aspects.2 So instead of focusing on technology or emphasising on the physical qualities of the water, tell customers what intangible benefits they get from their tap water. Most discussions about water focus on its life-sustaining properties, but tap water is so much more. Using tap water is an essential part of modern life and is used to maintain the lifestyle we have come accustomed to.

Having a shower is a perfect place for generating inspiring ideas; water is an essential ingredient in virtually every single recipe; water performs a crucial role in some of the most intimate moments in our lives.

These ads are designed to communicate the intangible aspects of water and show that using water is not about the water itself, but about the value that water adds to our life.

  1. Rushton, A. M., & Carson, D. J. (1985). The marketing of services: Managing the intangibles. European Journal of Marketing, 19(3), 19–40. doi:10.1108/EUM0000000004748

  2. Shostack, G. L. (1982). How to design a service. European Journal of Marketing, 16(1), 49–63. doi:10.1108/EUM0000000004799

Bottled Water Marketing — The Importance of Origin

Fiji water does not suffer from marketing myopia - bottled water marketingTwo pieces of interesting information regarding bottled water marketing have surfaced on the internet recently. Nestle has been sued for falsely advertising the origin of bottled water, and researchers published a finding that tap water is inherently safer than bottled water.

Nestlé is in trouble because its “spring water” source is municipal tap water. Nestlé’s advertising campaign claims the contents of Ice Mountain Water to be spring water, while it is distinctly referred to as “drinking water”, which is defined as “municipal water and well water…” in their documents.1 The water is further processed by Nestlé’s treatment plants and branded with images of pristine glacial lakes and mountains.

Bottled Water Marketing Strategy

This strategy is standard for bottled water companies. Given that tap water is identical to tap water, at 1000 times the price, bottled water companies need to increase the value proposition of their offering by emphasising how their product is different to tap water. A common strategy used by bottled water companies is to highlight origin and link the origin to increased benefits, such as health. Just look at Fiji Water, Evian and any other bottled water brand.

Many water utilities don’t do origin strategies very well, focusing on treatment processes instead of the natural origin of their service. Origin is of prime importance in water marketing, being it tap water or bottled water. Problems with the acceptance of recycled sewage as drinking water forcefully illustrate this point.

  1. The link to the document on the Tap It Talk website is longer active.