Friday, February 17, 2017

Branding Update
February 8, 2017

Fake News

It's debatable whether the internet was designed to enable the free flow of truthful and useful information, but it's safe to say that this should be our desire. However, it's very clear that the internet has increased the power of divisive speech, hyperbole, and false information. Debating the internet's benefits and drawbacks will continue for quite some time, maybe for as long as humans exist. So, we won't tackle the broader question here, but we should respond to the rise of "fake news."

The Lure of Fabricated Facts - It's very difficult for well-researched information to compete with fiction, because fiction can always be fabricated to be more eye catching, more polarizing, and more effective in playing on our fears and advancing a specific agenda. And what may even be more disturbing is that some people are applying the term fake news to information simply because it doesn't align with their own beliefs or ideologies. In other words, if I don't agree, it must be false. This behavior is troubling independent of a person's ideological or political leanings.

Utilities Combating Erroneous Information - Utilities have been dealing with inaccurate information for quite some time, often presented by gadflies and opponents during public-policy meetings. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheels affect policy decisions more often than utility managers like to admit. During our work with utilities on branding, we have learned that part of the problem is how difficult it is for utilities to get people's attention and create transparency.

The Transparency Gap - Even though utilities provide quite a bit of information, and utility managers make every effort to ensure their facts are correct, it is still difficult and time consuming for people to evaluate the utility's decisions and accomplishments. This means that most people, including elected officials and influential community leaders, have not formulated an accurate opinion of the utility's performance. This state-of-affairs allows faulty facts and ideologies to gain traction. Furthermore, recent trends related to fake news may embolden those who have no interest in facts and wish only to advance preconceived notions about the effectiveness and efficiency of public agencies.

Creating Unassailable Content - Although branding is often categorized as spin, great brands provide compelling value to their customers. And the branding tactics being advanced by Resource Trends and the Utility Branding Network are designed to reduce confusion and increase transparency. The foundation for these tactics is providing superior customer service, and realizing that customers are also shareholders and investors in the utility's resources and infrastructure. Treating audiences like shareholders involves communicating the utility's standards, producing compelling arguments for investment, and creating content that makes it easy for community leaders to be informed. Although no information is completely indisputable, we undeniably live in world where it makes sense to do a better job of being factual, clear, and compelling.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Branding Update
December 15, 2016

Year-End Reflections

At the end of the year it helps to reflect on learning and accomplishments, and 2016 was a banner year for both.

The Central Role of Standards -We continue to witness the power of standards in helping utilities enhance planning, deliver compelling value, and increase transparency. We learned to fully appreciate that the essence of a brand is its standards, which define and operationalize the product's value or service experience. And if you want employees to be empowered and embrace the brand, emphasize standards in your internal dialogue and decision-making processes.

An Unbalanced Dialogue - From the beginning, the utility-branding objective has been to secure appropriate investment in resources and infrastructure. We always understood that investment decisions occur in a political environment. What has become increasingly clear is that most utilities engage in an unbalanced dialogue during the approval process for rate increases or major investments. This is because most community leaders, let alone the public, are not plugged-in to the utility's activities, decisions, and accomplishments. This means that the dialogue about rates and investment occurs between a small group of people, typically the utility's staff, policy makers, and members of the public who choose to be engaged. The people who do show up deserve to be heard, but their interests should not be given undue consideration. Unfortunately, absent more community leaders being involved, the squeaky wheels often influence policy.

Reaching the Influential Public - Several utilities are balancing the dialogue by launching communication programs designed to build relationships with community leaders. These programs make it easy to be informed (requiring only 2-3 minutes per month of their time). The marquee content featured in these information briefs does not attempt to "dumb down" technical information, but treats the audience like investors and shareholders. A great example is the DSRSDtoday program being implemented by Dublin San Ramon Services District.

Compelling Arguments for Investment - The Utility Branding Network tool "Making a Compelling Argument for Investment" continues to be well received. The tool is being used for investment proposals in Board Packets, describing major objectives in strategic plans, and for leading a dialogue with the public about investments in resources and infrastructure. Click here to view the tool.

General Manager Forums and Workshops - Helping utility GM's engage in the branding process has been a long-time goal of the Utility Branding Network, and 2016 was a banner year for progress. We held two GM Forums in Southern California and one in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Branding Network also held its first workshop in the Bay Area for staff and managers, sponsored by Santa Clara Valley Water District (held at their Silicon Valley Water Purification Center).
Thanks to those utilities who are supporting the Utility Branding Network, and thanks again to the National Water Research Institute (NWRI) for sponsoring the Network. I look forward to even greater progress and learning in 2017.

Have a Happy Holiday Season!

John Ruetten - Resource Trends, Inc.