Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Branding Update
November 19, 2014

Happy Holidays....2015 Preview!

Sorry for the recent hiatus in Branding Updates.  Resource Trends wishes you and your family a joyful holiday season!

We have been making significant progress on the utility branding front.  Look for these topics in 2015 Branding Updates:
  • Appreciating the relationship between value, brands, standards, and being meaningfully transparent
  • Elevating the use of standards in communications, investment proposals, and rate increases
  • Differentiating between core (behavioral) values and the utility's business values (brand commitments)
  • Using the "Policy Brief" format for making compelling arguments for investments or policy decisions
  • Making it easier for people to quickly understand the utility's roles and value
  • Using a "Branding Checklist" to keep communication materials and outreach events on track
  • Adopting a brand focused, easy to read, and effective format for the utility's Strategic Plan
  • Implementing ways to systematically build stronger relationships with the influential public

Also, we are planning another Utility Branding Network workshop early next year.  More information soon!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Branding Update
September 24, 2014

Making It Easy

Experiencing the Value of a Consumer Brand - It’s pretty easy to appreciate the value of a brand like Starbucks.  Customers experience it every time they order a drink or spend time in a store.  And if we are exploring the art of branding, it’s interesting to write down the thoughts that we associate with this brand that has become so ubiquitous in our culture.  Feelings about Starbucks will vary from person to person, but here are some attributes that seem pretty obvious.
  • Offers a Variety of Tasty “Coffee” Drinks
  • A Great Place to Meet Friends or Business Associates
  • A Starbucks Store is Always Close By
  • Clean, Pleasant Environment – The Aroma of Coffee
  • Good Customer Service
  • Free Internet
  • My Second Home Office
It is useful to note that these ways of categorizing the Starbucks experience actually create a framework for thinking about the value of Starbucks.  And most habitual Starbucks patrons could easily generate a similar list of attributes.  These features of the brand ultimately determine a person’s willingness to frequent Starbucks stores and pay the going price for the drinks and food.

The Challenge in Appreciating a Water Utility’s Value – It’s useful to explore how easy is it for people to appreciate the roles and value of a water utility, beyond the fact that the waters shows up, isn’t discolored, doesn’t smell bad, or hasn’t made them ill.  The fact is that it’s not easy to appreciate the planning, investment, financial expertise, and efficiency required to cost effectively provide reliable and high quality water service.  Appreciating these issues is important, because they affect the dialogue between utility managers, policy makers and the public about investing in resources and infrastructure.  The fundamental reason for this difficulty in appreciating the utility’s value is that utility managers have not made it a priority to understand this challenge, and how it can lead to unnecessary conflict or water rates that fail to fund needed investments.  And this problem arguably affects any organization involved in managing municipal water or wastewater services.

The Utility’s Brand Framework - In order to make it easier for people to appreciate the utility’s value, we need to start with the utility’s brand framework, similar to the framework defined above for Starbucks.  This framework for a water utility should look similar to the following:
  • Sound Planners
  • Committed to Appropriate Investment
  • Highly Reliable Water Service
  • Safe, High Quality Water
  • Responsive (Easy) Customer Service
  • Efficient and Fiscally Responsible
  • Transparent Decision Making and Operations
So for example, utility managers want people to characterize the utility as one that plans well, and appropriately and efficiently invests in providing reliable water service.  It is not a small victory when policy makers or community leaders actually categorize (or brand) the utility in this way.  If they really believe that the utility is investing appropriately and is efficient, then it will be much easier to build support for investment and rate increases.  However, all too often utilities are summarily branded as inefficient or marginally effective because they are “government” agencies.

Making it Easy - In order to head off erroneous conclusions and provide the needed context for understanding the utility’s value, the brand framework needs to consistently show up in planning documents, websites, brochures, board meetings, and presentations.  In fact, the brand framework and key standards must be the context whenever a policy maker or member of the public is evaluating the utility’s activities or proposed investments.  For example, a single sheet brochure for the utility should be designed around the brand framework, communicate important standards, and allow people to get a good grasp of the utility’s roles and value in 2-3 minutes of reading.  This brochure structure can also be used for providing similar information on the website.  And briefings on important policy issues need to emphasize the standards that are motivating the staff to take action or recommend a specific investment.  It is not complicated to provide people with this critical context and transparency, but utility managers need to understand the problem and reorient their communications to make it happen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Branding Update
August 11, 2014

The "Target Market" for Utilities

This cartoon sends a warning to consumer branding professionals to avoid a common temptation: trying to be all things to all people.  Unfortunately, this loss of focus usually leads to declining market share and potentially failure of the brand.

Many water-utility professionals would say that they serve the entire community, so their audience for outreach efforts is everyone who uses their services.  It is important to remember that the strongest consumer brands build relationships with specific people, with the ultimate objective being that these people choose to buy their product at full price.  Constant discounting from the retail price is a sign of a weak brand.  So the brand objective is to influence the choice and the price that people are willing to pay.

For water and wastewater utilities, consumer choice is typically not in the picture, and the price (rates) is set by policy makers (city councils or water boards).  The brand objective is ensuring that rates reflect appropriate investment in water resources and infrastructure.  So, when planning proactive outreach, utility managers should avoid ineffective and costly efforts to reach the general public.  They should prioritize building relationships with policy makers and those specific community leaders who are influential.  Having very strong relationships with even 15-25 of these community leaders can have a significant impact on rate setting, even if only to counter those vocal community members with strong biases or special interests.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Branding Update
July 1, 2014

Depersonalize the Dialogue

It is all too easy for the staff of water and wastewater utilities to assume that policy decisions are being made based on politics, personal gain, or political ideologies.  And it's equally easy for policy makers or the public to assume that staff is proposing a course of action based on personal opinions or beliefs.  One way to head off these often erroneous preconceptions is to make sure that the dialogue centers around standards. So, any discussion related to an investment proposal or policy decision should begin with a review of the relevant standards.  It is perfectly reasonable for someone to disagree with a standard.  In fact, a debate about standards is the most meaningful and transparent discussion that a utility can have with its community.  This is because standards determine both value and level of investment.  Finally, a dialogue about standards is less personal. This reduces the likelihood of unproductive conflict, and provides the best chance that policy decisions will be aligned with the best interests of the community.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Branding Update
June 5, 2014

"Quote" the Standard

When writing news releases utility communication professionals usually need to develop quotes for senior managers or policy makers.  Quoting a standard is very effective because it provides the context and articulates the value associated with the events or investments covered in the press release.  For example, "We are investing in recycled water to ensure that we have a highly reliable and climate-change resilient water supply."  In this case, highly reliable and climate-change resilient are the water-supply standards.  Or, "We have added aesthetic features to this pumping station to meet our standard of minimizing the impact of our facilities on the environment and our neighborhoods."  This quote illustrates that it's more powerful to explicitly refer to a motivation as a standard.  In fact, being a standards-driven organization is in itself a positive branding idea.

This "quote the standard" advice reminds us that what is meaningful to our audience is motivations and standards, because the utility's value is embedded in its standards.  This is true with any product or service.  How many standards do you think are in play when you enter a Starbucks store or any fast-food franchise?  Maybe more importantly, if the motivation or standard is not made crystal clear in a communication piece, it will be less interesting and will leave the door open for the reader to misinterpret motivations.  People misinterpreting motivations is common and is often the root cause of conflict.  Communication professionals benefit from having a comprehensive list of the utility's standards.  This helps them create content that is brief, meaningful, focused on value, and builds the utility's brand.  And by the way, this list of standards should also be the basis for strategic planning and proposing capital investments.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Branding Update
April 21, 2014

Website Structure and the Brand

Previous Branding Updates have pointed out that branding for utilities does not involve inventing new ideas of value, catchy phrases, or slogans.  It focuses on helping policy makers and community leaders properly categorize the utility’s value, competencies, and character.  One of the ways to do this is to consciously build the brand using the website’s structure and content.  A good example of this is the Cascade Water Alliance website at

The Cascade front page has several branding features, including the following:
  • Highlights the brand commitments or core values of the organization (in the boxes)
  • Commitments are water supply, cost effectiveness, regional leadership, water-use efficiency, and the commitment to its members
  • Emphasizes the need for long-term planning and proactive investments
  • Clearly defines Cascade’s service area and member agency partners
  • Emphasizes that Cascade’s members are the source of water quality and reliable service

The need for long-term planning is the central theme of the webpage’s video, “Cascade’s Vision for Today…and Tomorrow.”  Both the webpage and the video highlight the co-branding and co-messaging relationships between Cascade and its member utilities.  This partnership is reinforced by the fact that leaders from each community are the speakers in the video.

These concepts are simple but very important.  When communicating any information it is essential to give people a framework for thinking about the value and characteristics of the utility.  And when developing a website, the important point is to consciously address the brand when organizing the website’s content.  Without this structure, more detailed information will not have the proper context.  And out-of-context information rarely leads to desirable perceptions or trust.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Branding Update
April 7, 2014

The Appropriate Utility Brand

Past Branding Updates have covered a variety of topics related to consumer branding and branding as it applies to water and wastewater utilities.  The overarching point of these discussions is that branding absolutely applies to public utilities, or for that matter any person, product, or organization.  The following conclusions summarize key aspects of branding, and provide insights into the appropriate brand and branding activities for utilities.

Investment and Branding – Similar to the relationship between a product’s brand and its price, the purpose of utility branding is to ensure appropriate investment in water resources and infrastructure. 

Branding and Categorizing – Strong brands compete in or dominate a value category, for example Red Bull being a popular energy drink or Google being the leading search engine.  The important lesson is that people are constantly categorizing things, and these categorizations impact trust in organizations or people, and buying decisions about products.  The process of utility branding is defining how the utility should be categorized, and is being categorized, by those who make or influence policy decisions about rates and investment.

Categorizing and Trust – Utility categorizations are specific, and they determine the trust, or lack of trust, people have in the utility.  These trust categories typically relate to the utility’s roles, including water service reliability, customer service, public health, and protecting the environment. Furthermore, people want these services to be a good deal, so they need to know that the utility plans well, is efficient, and makes sound financial decisions.

Trust and Transparency – Transparency is a must for public utilities, but in order to build trust the shared information must be meaningful and important to the audience.  Sharing technical details or too much information is not being transparent and actually decreases trust.

Transparency and Standards – It turns out that one of the best ways to be meaningfully transparent is to highlight the motivations and standards driving activities and investment decisions. 

Standards and Compelling Value – Strong brands provide compelling value, and providing consistent and compelling value depends on standards.  Just think how many standards are at work when you enter a Starbucks store, including the strength and temperature of the coffee, the service, the look and feel of the store, and the standards that apply to every drink on the menu.

Compelling Value and Investment – Making a compelling argument for investment begins with sharing the standards that are driving the utility’s investment proposal.  This moves the dialogue away from opinions, vague ideologies, and technical minutia. This also allows staff and policy makers to focus on the suitability of the standards given the roles of the utility and the needs of the community.

Entrusted with Protecting the Public Interest - These conclusions remind us that there are strong links between brands, price, standards, transparency, trust, and investment.  It also leads us to the conclusion that branding for utilities needs to be appropriate given their duty to protect the public interest.  Customers cannot typically choose a different utility, so the need for trust is even greater than that of a consumer brand.  Because of this, appropriate utility branding is not based on logos, look, or advertising and it cannot involve spin or manipulation.  Utility branding must be substantive, focusing on customer service, standards, meaningful transparency, and making compelling arguments for investment.  The stakes are high, because service reliability and future quality of life in the community hang in the balance.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Branding Update
February 4, 2014

Reaching the General Public?

The cartoon above reminds us how difficult it can be to get the attention of the general public. And with ever more sophisticated strategies by marketers to get inside the head of consumers, it will only get more difficult. Despite the critical need for reliable water services, it can feel like the mind share captured by water utilities is no better than a pickle relish brand. And the pickle relish brand may actually have more money to spend on marketing than the water utility. People are not busting down the doors to attend public meetings on water. This serves as a reminder for utilities to focus on outreach that is effective, including making a good impression during customer service interactions (when people are paying attention) and building relationships with specific members of the influential public.