Is it possible to create a brand of ‘coolness’ around a water or wastewater utility? If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said “probably not.” But as the industry and the media landscape have evolved, it’s become clear that a favorable public perception of utility professionals improves brand value, which translates into trust and loyalty that can help utilities navigate crises, infrastructure investments or rate adjustments.
When I think of ‘cool’ utilities, I often associate that perception with their employees and with their outreach campaigns. How are these utilities elevating their brand, and what more can we learn from the psychology of branding to help all utilities better market and communicate with customers?
Marketing guru Seth Godin defines a brand as ‘the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.’ Most water utilities are monopolies, and many are publicly owned. but that does not mean that customers do not have a choice to support them, even as they rely on the water provided. Understanding branding can help build an enthusiastic and supportive customer base and a reservoir of goodwill.
Companies with strong brands such as Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Apple have convinced customers they will gain a unique level of satisfaction from using their products. These companies have honed in on five core dimensions of a successful brand — sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness.
In the water industry, successful utilities have conveyed sincerity, competence and sophistication by pairing excellent service with charismatic leadership. One example is DC Water, whose general manager George Hawkins is considered somewhat of a celebrity in the water world. A lawyer by training, he is down-to-earth, relatable and an excellent communicator. In 2009, DC Water’s reputation was badly damaged due to a lead-pipe contamination scandal in the early 2000s and an ancient water infrastructure in desperate need of revamping. When Hawkins came in, DC Water got a facelift and built a team that did much more to improve infrastructure in the nation’s capital to become state-of-the-art and environmentally sustainable.
Other utilities have branded their water itself to link it to a city’s identity. For example, Milwaukee Water Works brands itself as a national leader in water quality and as a proud supplier to the breweries that have made the city famous. Louisville Water has branded its Pure Tap water after being recognized for several years for having the nation’s best-tasting water; the utility markets its product as genuine, unique, reliable, and a source of civic pride.
Whether building a brand around people or products, utilities gain brand trust when customers are getting what they want from the service. A report from JD Power and Associates captures the elements of what makes a water customer happy; The 2016 Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study notes that customer satisfaction is greater for utilities that (1) communicate regularly with their customers, (2) demonstrate investment in improving infrastructure and (3) answer questions on first contact through customer service.
Building a reliable brand goes a long way, especially when there is need for approval of rate increases or changing behavior to encourage conservation. Utilities may never be able to build a brand as powerful as Starbucks, but they can take small and simple steps that help build brand trust with careful, thoughtful and creative communication strategies.