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.