By Stephanie Zavala; THE_H2duO, Rogue Water

I’ve been in the water industry for more than a decade. In our industry, we understand the value of water — evident in our hashtags, social media campaigns, and education initiatives. We gush about our work to the blank stares of our friends and family. We get it.

Why does an industry that possesses such a strong sense of self, seem to fall flat when communicating this value to the people who matter most in the equation: our customers?

Why do the communicators and educators tasked with conveying the value of water let themselves be silenced at the budget table when the folks from finance question a line item and declare we don’t need to invest in marketing ourselves because we’re just a water utility?

I’m all for fiscal responsibility, but isn’t it also fiscally responsible to be communicative and transparent about the true cost of water? Isn’t it our responsibility to empower citizens with the information they need to make more informed decisions about funding what impacts the water that comes from their taps or the toilets they flush?

The simple answer is yes. It’s why Rogue Water exists — to help others like us in the industry communicate the value of water through branding and messaging.

A brand is the soul of an organization, but often we let the incredible importance of branding fall to the wayside because we dismiss it as something only relevant to companies like Nike, Coke, or State Farm. We’re just a water utility, right? Sure, we dig water, but to the rest of the world, water is boring. And maybe it is. But guess what?

“You’re not selling water. You’re selling civilization.” – Ryan Romero

Brand Big

Ryan Romero is a veteran of the advertising world and now teaches at the University of Texas in Austin. When he dropped this one-liner at the Catalyst 2019 conference, the entire audience of water communicators and educators scribbled down this affirmation for future use. His point? We need to brand bigger.

We are more than the water we treat. We are all the grandiose things—i.e. the cornerstone of modern-day civilization—we discuss at happy hours, conference presentations, and association events. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making your brand all about yourself; before you do, imagine going on a date with someone who only talks about themselves… Not fun.

When I say “brand big,” I don’t mean let your pride and ego run rampant. While I encourage a good humble brag on your employees and accomplishments from time to time, our focus should be on the community we impact. Use a story to convey this impact. Introduce big picture topics through personal stories.

Maybe your city has a beloved park. That park wouldn’t be possible without the water for the grass or a splash pad or other water feature. What would the absence of that park mean for a local family or visitor? How does that park bring the community together?

Maybe a body of water,  like a river or lake, serves as a focal point for your community. Your wastewater treatment plant ensures the quality of that water. What would that mean for recreation if you didn’t exist? People may not fully understand why flushing wipes destroys our infrastructure, but they might feel a stronger sense of responsibility knowing that, by not flushing those wipes,  they are protecting the river whose trails they run or the lake where they kayak.

You’re not selling water. You’re selling civilization. Find the stories there. Be bigger than water.

Message Small

“If we want to reignite innovation and passion, we have to humanize work.” – Brene Brown

Our brand is not only who we are, but why we do what we do.  We know this industry is vital to public health. We save lives every day. We protect the environment every day. But if we don’t communicate our “why” to the people in our community, our neighbors, we’re missing the point.

If we don’t own the humanity in the “why” of our industry as part of our brand, we stand to lose the trust and support of the people we depend upon to help us create sustainable water systems.

Prime real estate is all about “location, location, location.” Effective communication? Audience, audience, audience. Ask not what your audience can do for you, but what you can do for your audience. Hone in on your audience and create content specifically for them.

Your audience isn’t everyone. Take the time to understand who they are; find out what they value, how they like to receive information, and where they already are.  Segment your audience and curate content for each segment. Make it personal and authentic.

Humans are bombarded by 5,000 messages a day. Every single stimulus runs through a filter in the brain that asks, “What does this have to do with me?” If the answer is “nothing,” that message won’t even make it to the conscious mind.

Human beings are hardwired to survive. It’s why our brains come off a little narcissistic. Putting our needs first is why our ancestors figured out to outrun the sabertooth tiger and developed tools like fire to increase our odds of survival. We’re not outrunning tigers anymore, but our brains are daily fighting sensory overload and burn out. Outsmart the filter by adding value to whatever message you’re conveying.

The water industry is facing some significant challenges. We cannot and should not be trying to tackle them alone. It’s a team effort, and we can’t continue to keep our customers on the bench. We need them engaged and in the game.

Brand big. Give your customers a call-to-action that empowers them to make an impact.

Message small. Know your audience, personalize your message to them, and express why they should care.

Saving the world is a noble mission, but the world is big, overwhelming. Do your customers a favor and show them what aspects they can control. Empower and compel them to take action. Then, watch the ripples.


Stephanie Zavala is CEO and Co-Founder of Rogue Water. She founded Rogue with her best friend, business partner, and the other half of the H2DuO, Arianne Shipley. Stephanie worked for various water utilities for ten years in the education and communication fields. She is so passionate about communication in the water industry that she started her own company to partner with any water utility that shared that commitment to communication.

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