Pretty, but doesn't say what benefit D.C. Water and Sewer Authority provides. CEO and General Manager George Hawkins's wanted to rebrand the utility, which meant coming up with a new logo. More than 170 people and organizations submitted designs.
Pretty, but doesn't say what benefit D.C. Water and Sewer Authority provides. CEO and General Manager George Hawkins's wanted to rebrand the utility, which meant coming up with a new logo. More than 170 people and organizations submitted designs.

In the 1980s, seven people died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol. Sales plummeted but the brand was back to being the top-selling pain reliever within a year. Rather than fight bad press, the manufacturer owned the investigation and recovery process. To this day, no one knows who did it. Johnson & Johnson determined the poison was injected into capsules after they left the factory. Even though it wasn’t responsible for the deaths, the company spent millions developing consumer protections that became industry standards: packaging components like foil seals that show pin pricks and caplets instead of two-piece capsules that can be pulled apart and put back together.

The winning design makes it impossible to misconstrue the water and sewer utility's value proposition.
The winning design makes it impossible to misconstrue the water and sewer utility's value proposition.

I thought of Tylenol as I listened to DC Water CEO and General Manager George Hawkins address the 15th annual Collection Systems Luncheon at WEFTEC earlier this month. No, the utility hasn’t killed anyone. But it has overcome perception challenges that all public works departments face. Customers didn’t really know or care what it did or how it affected their lives. It was just another faceless government bureaucracy. Rates were going up but headlines about illegal sewage discharges, consent decrees, and dangerous lead levels continued. Typical government ineptitude. What a bunch of bums!

“People don’t know us unless there’s something wrong,” he said. “And if someone knows you only when there’s something wrong, they don’t like you.”

Good point. How do you make people understand the vital role your team plays in their daily lives? It helps if they understand its value proposition, so the utility launched a contest to which almost 200 people and organizations responded. “We got all kinds of things … turds, toilets, you name it,” Hawkins said. The utility's new tag line -- "water is life" -- eliminates any doubt about its importance.

Creating jobs also helps. All public agencies hire people, many of whom are residents and therefore also customers. Many agencies hire contractors, who also hire people, many of whom are residents. Because people don't always think of local government as a potential employer. DC Water's website explains how its $1 billion combined operating and capital budgets generates jobs.

"Branding" is one of those ubiquitous, and thus irritating, marketing terms. But that doesn't make it the wrong thing to do. What DC Water’s done isn’t rocket science, but earning public approval is just as hard. What's your agency's brand?