Water utility branding: What is your Utility’s Personality?

Water utility advertisingIn one of my earliest presentations on water utility marketing, I was asked by a spectator how the invisibility principle relates to the issue of branding for water utilities. My initial answer was that branding is not critical as a perfect water utility is invisible to the customers — other than the physical services they provide and the occasional bill. In the past two years, I have revisited this view and developed a more subtle approach to this question.

Branding a Water Utility

Where is the emotion?

The biggest problem with branding a water utility is that the average consumer only spends a few minutes in direct contact with utility staff. The number of touch points between utility and customer, beyond the bill and the physical service, are minimal.

A few years ago I lectured consumer behaviour for masters students at La Trobe University. After teaching students about brand personality, I asked students to view a website of a water utility and report back on the brand personality of these utilities. One student asked: “Where is the emotion?”. The website was filled with images of excavators laying pipe, treatment plants and even a diver swimming in sewage.

Water utilities can improve brand personality by emphasising the intangible aspects of the value they provide, as illustrated in the first image on this page. Water utilities are not technology companies, but they deliver a substance that mediates in emotional experiences, such as bathing your child.

Branding beyond the logo

Wellington sewer manhole - water utility branding

Wellington sewer manhole. Click on the photo to see the explanation of the artwork.

A brand is so much more than a logo and extends into everything the utility does and communicates. An example of where branding meets core service delivery are the assets that are visible in public space. Engineers design most water utility assets with a utilitarian purpose. The design of these assets, beyond their functional use, influences the image that people have of the local utility. This idea does not mean that we just need to slap a logo on assets visible in public space — it requires a bit more thought.

The photograph shows a sewer manhole in the city of Wellington. The manhole is an excellent example of utility branding as it provides a talking point in the street. There is no logo, but this manhole goes beyond the typical dull lids. The artwork is created by a local Maori artist and has symbolic meaning.

Branding an Invisible Water Utility

The invisibility principle still holds but needs to be enhanced through using the theory of brand personality. Water utilities will be the person working in the background to make sure society runs smooth, without needing to take the credit.

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.

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

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. 

Marketing Myopia in Tap Water Services

Source: www.blog.designsquish.com.

Source: www.blog.designsquish.com.

A few weeks ago I ran a workshop for a group of senior managers of a tap water supplier. The workshop consisted of a series of rhetorical questions designed to spawn discussion about the meaning of customer service in tap water.

When asking the question: “What service do you provide?” the answers were mainly based on the physical aspects: physically providing water to customers.

The water managers were wrong! A tap water company is, paradoxically, not about selling tap water.

Marketing Myopia

Managers of water utilities who believe that they merely sell water suffer from so-called ‘marketing myopia’, a term coined in 1960 by Theodore Levitt.1 This is a situation where an organisation focuses on selling products or services instead of focusing on satisfying customer needs.

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between needs and wants. In marketing the common sense definition—needs are obligatory and wants are discriminatory—does not apply.2 Needs are a state of felt deprivation which is either physical, social or psychological. Looking at water as a service, we need some water to physically survive and for hygiene. Al significant amount of the water we use for hygiene is, however, driven by sociological needs because of western values towards cleanliness. People also need water for their gardens because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. People need water for their swimming pool, because it provides them an outlet for social belonging. Nobody buys water just for the pleasure of owning it, water has a purpose.

One of the main rules in consumer behaviour is that we do not buy products for what they do, but for what they mean.3 So as marketers we do not judge the consumer’s needs or wants. Consumers need water for social and psychological reasons, as much as they need it for physiological reasons.

Avoiding marketing myopia

Good marketing is about satisfying the needs of the customers, which means you need to understand them. In the context of water it is important to understand what your customers do with the water. Looking at websites of water utilities shows a large focus on the technology to deliver the product. There seems to be a need to tell consumers how much effort is required to give them their daily tap water instead of showing the benefits of using the water.

Fiji water does not suffer from marketing myopia

Source: www.fijiwater.com

Bottled water companies have a different view on this issue. Their communication material never shows the production process, they show the origin of the water or the benefits it provides. This ad from Fiji water emphasises the purity of the water by using the word ‘untouched’. Bottled water companies connect their product not with technology, but with nature and beautiful healthy people.

We need a paradigm shift in the way tap water is marketed by utilities. Not because customers might defect to the competition, but to create goodwill. Many water companies try to do this by rationally explaining how hard it is to create drinking water. Well, I am sorry to say that your customers don’t care about water as much as you do.

A much more effective way is to tap into the emotions of your customers and link your product to the benefits it provides them, or the pristine origins of the water. A water utility is not about selling water, it is about promoting health, providing water to have fun, grow your own vegetables or relax in a bubble bath.


  1. Levitt, T. (1960). Marketing Myopia. Harvard Business Review, 38(May/June), 45–56. 

  2. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. 

  3. Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168. 

Are Tap Water Managers Lazy Marketers?

Water is like air—a natural occurring substance without which life is not possible. But unlike air, tap water is a commercial commodity that is only available at a price from water utilities.

In developed countries, tap water is provided through reticulated systems. Pipes in your street deliver water directly to your house, and you pay a price, depending on the amount of water used. Even through tap water pricing is a controversial topic, it is very cheap. With prices of less than one cent per litre, filling a bottle of water costs practically nothing. But, not all water is the same. Purveyors of bottled water charge hundreds of times the price people pay for tap water, even though the core product is the same.

In an episode of Australian comedy show Gruen Transfer, advertising executive Russel Howcroft facetiously explained this price difference by stating that water utilities are lazy marketers. Is Russel correct?

Marketing Tap Water

Most managers at water utility companies believe that there is no need for marketing because reticulated water is a natural monopoly. But marketing is more than selling and advertising. In the words of Phillip Kotler, marketing is “customer satisfaction engineering”. Marketing is the process of creating value for the customer.1

Bottled water companies create brands that are built on images of pristine rivers and healthy happy people. Water utility companies mostly brand themselves with technology, proudly showing their latest treatment facilities, pumps and pipelines. Bottled water companies focus on emotional aspects of their brand, while water utilities follow a more rational technological approach.

Why are we willing to pay so much more for bottled water? Willingness to pay is, among other things, related to the level of involvement we have with the product.2  Potable water is considered a low involvement product. We don’t care about the water, as long as it is available. Potable water derived from the tap cannot be differentiated from other potable water as all H2O is the same. Bottled water companies know this, so they increase the level of involvement and differentiate from the competition through effective branding. Bottled water companies create a brand personality by attaching images of naturalness and purity to their product. They never show the bottling plant, the pipes and pumps they use to create their product. Bottled water companies attach emotion to their brand, which increases our level of involvement and our willingness to pay.

NYC water does not suffer from marketing myopia

NYC water does not suffer from marketing myopia.

I am not arguing that through smart marketing water utilities can charge as much as bottled water companies—that would make having a bath a very expensive experience. Tap water is used for many purposes, including flushing it down the toilet, which limits the amount we are willing to pay.3

Russell is, however, correct in saying that water utilities are lazy markers because they are pre-occupied with their internal technological perspective on the product. Why not focus more on the people who use the water? The above example from the New York City water company is an excellent case in point.

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

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

  3. Levy, D. (1982). Diamonds, water, and Z goods: an account of the paradox of value. History of Political Economy, 14(3), 312–322.