In 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
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 the service provider and customer, beyond the bill and the physical server, 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 site was filled with images of excavators laying pipe, treatment plants and even a diver swimming in sewage.
Where is the emotion?
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 emotional experiences, such as bathing your child.
Branding beyond the logo
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 need to slap a logo on assets visible in public space — it requires a bit more thought.
The photograph shows a sewer access chamber 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 cover goes beyond the typical dull lids. The artwork is created by a local Maori artist and has symbolic meaning. The design represents the water and sewage that flows above and below the land. The koru, the spiral shape, represents the people who live on the land and who need the water and sewage to flow.
Branding an Invisible Water Utility
The invisibility principle still holds but it needs to be enhanced through using the theory of brand personality. Water utilities work in the background to make sure society runs smooth, without needing to take the credit. They are like the chef or the stagehand that make a performance go smoothly, without being seen by the customers.
The core services of water utilities need to remain invisible. But this invisibility does not imply that water utilities have no brand. There is still a need to engage with the community to develop a relationship with customers. Rather than speaking to customers about core services, which is usually a convsersaion about service failures, utilities can build a positive brand by proactively engaging with communities.