A comment I heard recently from an elected official was that it was inappropriate to use public dollars for their water agency to market their water product. Interesting, and it suggests a major barrier to the development of local utility systems. The cell phone companies, cable television, bottled water companies and security agencies all market constantly to our customers. Virtually all of them charge more for their service than we do for water and wastewater. The costs for all have increased faster than water and sewer. But try surviving in the desert with only cable tv and no water.
Utilities compete with every other vendor for the same dollars. They want our customers to value their products more. They want our customers to divert dollars to them, so they need to increase the value of their products in the minds of our customers. This is what marketing is all about. If you cannot show the value of your product, the value diminishes in comparison to other products. So while the needs for water and sewer systems increase, we see more of our customers’ dollars go elsewhere and the accompanying demands to control our rates.
Water and wastewater systems must market their product. Clean healthy water is available to virtually everyone. People expect their faucet will turn on and provide good quality water, and that the toilet will flush. They take it for granted, yet much of the world does not enjoy the same quality of consistency in service. Water service is a commodity, and comes with a cost.
We say we want to operate the utility like a business, and many systems are run this way. Most charge based on usage (or should). But we fail to pursue one of the basic tenets of running a business: marketing our product. The annual CCR is not a marketing tool. Water bills can convey messages, but they do not really function as marketing either. Water conservation programs can help, but here the message is use less, not the benefit of the product. We simply do not market water. It is why the bottle water industry continues to grow, despite the fact that public water systems offer water at least as safe and healthy as bottled water, subject to more regulatory oversight, at a fraction of the cost.
So given that utilities, the majority of which are owned by local governments, are operated like a business, why shouldn’t we spend money on marketing the benefits of clean, safe water? Why not market the benefits of 24/7 service? Why not highlight the efforts of dedicated employees that ensure the system operates 24/7? Why not raise consciousness of the water commodity to increase its value in the public’s eye? The only reason not to market is the benefit competing services. That does not benefit the public good, nor support the need to recover the costs of service and repair and replacement needs of the system.
Creating a marketing plan, or branding program for your utility is a major undertaking. DC Water spent year re-branding their system to raise consciousness. Creating marketing programs to engender success requires multi-media outlets, consistent messages, and vision. It requires that employees and elected officials be on the same page with their customers. We need to understand customer expectations of the service to raise value in their minds. If marketing can sell pet rocks, we can market the value of water. It is in our best interests to do so.