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.

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