Recent 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 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 reclaimed 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 the 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.
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 reclaimed 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.