Marketing Myopia in Tap Water Services

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.

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.

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