Friday, July 12, 2013

Branding Update
July 12, 2013

Unique Aspects of the Brand

Previous Branding Updates have addressed common elements of the utility brand. However, each agency will have aspects of the brand that are somewhat unique. The unique elements will depend on the specific roles of the utility (its mission) and the distinctive aspects of the community the utility serves. For example, a wastewater utility that serves a small affluent community in the mountains with a pristine watershed will have a different brand than the city of Chicago. The smaller utility in the mountains will likely need to have a very strong environmental ethic, resulting in high standards for preventing sewer overflows and ensuring that water discharged into the river is high quality. A sewer overflow is bad anywhere, but it will arguably be viewed differently in Chicago than in Vail, Colorado. And the political issues facing as a large municipal utility are clearly different than the challenges in a small town. These unique qualities and roles must be considered when defining the brand.

Branding Applies to Small Utilities - As noted above, a distinctive quality of a utility is its size. Some may argue that a small utility cannot implement branding because they do not have the financial resources to fund a large outreach program or to even have a full-time communications person. It pays to remember that branding is not just about what you say, but who you are. Utilities, big and small, are being branded due to their customer service, policy decisions, and the way they interact with their communities. This is true whether or not the utility is "advertising" and independent of how many communication people are on staff. Utilities that serve small communities are not exempt from the challenge of building trust with the influential public and securing appropriate investment. In fact, branding may be more applicable in small communities because of the intimate nature of the relationships. Sewer spills can make the front page of the newspaper. A person can call and ask for the general manager of the utility and actually get to talk with him or her. Because of this intimacy, the brand (especially the personal characteristics of the staff) is very important in a small community.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Branding Update
July 1, 2013

Communications and Strategic Planning

Making Communications More Meaningful – Despite the fact that branding is much more than just communications, it is still important to communicate in ways that people can understand. Publicity programs, relationship-development efforts, public-outreach programs, and advertising are all forms of communications. Water and wastewater utilities have a tendency to talk about technologies, activities, and events without reminding the audience how these things relate to the value provided to the community. Making communications more meaningful is an important outcome of good branding. The principal rule is to never discuss an activity, decision, investment, technology, process, or milestone without connecting it to motivations. The motivation communicates value, and these motivations are often one or more elements of the brand. This is illustrated in the following examples:

“The North Fork Reservoir project plan has been approved by the City Council, which is a critical milestone in improving water reliability and drought resiliency in the region. This project will allow our region to weather multi-year droughts with little or no cutback in service.”

“Completion of the water-quality laboratory will allow us to meet our goal to improve water quality and increase our knowledge of water-quality issues.”

This may seem like Communications 101, but these examples make clear the motivations of the utility and the value created by the action or investment. Being able to “weather a multi-year drought with little or no cutback in service” is based on the utility’s reliability promise. It is also an unambiguous statement of value. Conflict is often rooted in misunderstandings about the reasons behind a decision or proposal. Utility managers should not make policy makers, customers, and influential community members guess at the utility’s motivations. Connecting decisions and activities to the commitments articulated in the brand is not dumbing things down. On the contrary, it makes things clear and reduces the likelihood of both confusion and conflict.

Communications and Strategic Planning – It turns out that the concept of meaningful communications is the foundation for a producing a good strategic plan. It is essential for the strategic plan to connect proposed actions and investments with the fundamental promises (the brand) of the organization, and other important standards driving investment decisions and influencing priorities. These other standards are major regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act, or might be internally generated ethics like improving water quality or increasing knowledge about water-quality issues (as highlighted in the example above). So, the strategic-planning process needs to be as much about identifying and clarifying standards as it is listing proposed actions. This is not a trivial exercise, but it is well worth the effort. Connecting activities and investments with the pertinent brand promises and other motivations demonstrates integrity. It also provides the meaningful transparency necessary to build trust and make compelling arguments for investment.    

Have a Fun-Filled 4th of July!