The Paradoxes of Water Utility Marketing

It’s been a year since I created this blog and it’s a pleasure to share these pages with people interested in anything to do with water. I am delighted to introduce Dr Peter Prevos a highly philosophical manager of the Data Science team in Coliban Water- a regional urban water authority in Australia. He is also a sessional lecturer in La Trobe university in Melbourne who has his own blog featuring water marketing and analytics.  Today, Dr Peter will be guest-posting, sharing with us his findings about the paradoxes of water management. When he accepted my invitation to share his knowledge of this subject on my blog, I was thrilled as his writing will highlight the challenges of contemporary water management from a practice worldview of the water utility. I hope you find good food for thought in his piece below; and please share this piece with your circle of friends and colleagues – Fatima A.

Guest post by Dr Peter Prevos

Customers, regulators and community groups are urging water utilities around the world to become more customer-focused. Many exciting initiatives have been developed by water professionals to achieve this goal. These activities show that in many countries, the industry is transitioning from focusing on asset performance to managing the customer’s experience.

Water utilities are generally managed by professionals qualified in engineering, biology or chemistry who decide on complex technical issues based on physics, chemistry and biology. When water utilities decide on customer issues, they base their decisions on marketing theory. Most of the existing marketing theories are, however, not suitable for water services.

My recently-completed PhD thesis discusses how marketing theory can be practically applied to the characteristics of the tap water industry. While researching how to apply marketing theory to water utilities, I found the following four emerged paradoxes that water managers need to be aware of:

1. The Paradox of Value

Water is a life-sustaining liquid yet the willingness to pay for it is very low. This first paradox was already recognised by the ancient Greeks. Although economists have resolved this paradox when they developed the theory of marginal utility, for water managers this issue still plays very strongly. The problem of willingness to pay was discussed in the Australian show The Gruen Transfer in which Marketer Russell Howcroft claims that water utilities are “lazy marketers”

The price we are willing to pay is related to the relative value we attach to a purchase which is evident in people’s high involvement with diamonds for example. Owning a diamond provides social status, while access to tap water on the other hand is normalised and not a status symbol because water flows out of our tap, without the water user’s effort or any real involvement in the process. The marketing remedy for the paradox of the worth and cost of water is therefore to emphasise the difference between its value and its price.

2. The Water Quality Paradox

Potable water hides a complexity that is one of the leading causes of customer dissatisfaction. As service providers, water utilities aim to deliver water that minimises risk to public health. Water utility professionals assess the quality of water using scientific measurements and express it in esoteric units such as death and Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) attributed to water, sanitation and hygiene. The vast majority of customers are, however, not able to appreciate the public health quality of water. Customers assess the quality of water through its aesthetic properties. When water does not taste refreshing, exudes an odour or is coloured customers may lose trust in the product, even though it may be perfectly safe to drink.

3. The Involvement Paradox

The general wisdom in water utility and business literature is that the level of consumer involvement with potable water is low. The fact that water is essential to life suggests that consumers of tap water have a high degree of involvement with the service. This situation seems paradoxical because both assertions cannot be true at the same time. This paradox can be resolved by examining involvement from two different perspectives. Potable water as an essential product will logically attract a very high level of cognitive involvement because life in the developed world without it is unthinkable. However, as a non-branded, undifferentiated, monopolistic service, the level of emotional involvement that potable water attracts will be significantly lower.

4. The Invisibility Paradox

Potable water is so reliable that global giant Uber wants to provide “Transportation that is as reliable as running water”. The paradox of highly reliable water utilities is that the water security that they help provide has created problems in terms of their visibility to customers. Traditional marketing wisdom suggests that invisibility is not beneficial because it prevents developing a strong brand. The invisibility paradox implies that this idea cannot apply to water utilities. A perfect level of service means that the customer almost never contacts their water utility. If there are no outages and water is refreshing and clear, then customer contact will only be in relation to the payment of water bills.

Embracing the Paradoxes

We are trained to believe that paradoxes need to be resolved. In a recent article, Professor Sydney Finkelstein writes that: “The best managers are comfortable holding two opposing views because they know the world is complex.” I therefore believe that managing a customer-centric water utility requires you to embrace these paradoxes and finding ways to remediate the challenges that they pose:

  • Water is valuable but we sell it for a low price
  • Water is safe to drink but is sometimes not accepted by customers
  • Water is essential but some customers may not care much about it
  • Water is invisible to customers but perfect service may imply invisibility

If you like to know more about how to do so, then you should think about purchasing my forthcoming book Customer Experience Management for Water Utilities: Marketing urban water supply by IWA Publishing.

Feel free to connect with me on linkedin and also visit my blog blog.

Attending the 18th UK-IWA YWP Conference: Why you should not miss it in 2018

The most important event of the year for young professionals – the IWA Young Water Professionals Conference was held in the stunning city of Bath, UK between 10th -12th April 2017. The theme of the conference “A Water World Without Boundaries” was very evident in the diversity of guests from around the world with speciality in different areas relative to water. Attending this event was an energizing experience with a variety of presentations, workshops and discussion sessions to choose from.

The first day kicked off with a welcoming panel discussion on careers in water, after which I attended a water inspiration workshop on public engagement designed around showcasing a public hearing on managing severe water stress in a county – chaired by Patricia Bakir of the International Water Association’s (IWA) Public and Customer Communication Specialist Group (IWA PCCSG). This proved rather interesting, and highlighted cross-sectoral interaction (between the water utility, farmers, low-income and high income earners, the Government, environmental groups etc.) and deliberation to tackle a water issue in a manner that does not impede but facilitates the nexus between water, agriculture and jobs. The workshop, like others being facilitated was very hands-on and engaging and we all were immersing ourselves in our stakeholder roles.

Day 2 was equally rewarding, with platform and flash presenters sharing their works very concisely; around social, cultural, and behavioural as well as technical and policy water solutions. I also delivered a platform presentation on the Message-Actor-Channel (MAC) model of communicative water practices for succinctly examining engagement in water utilities. Flowing from most presentations was the thinking that even though it is sometimes difficult to go outside the box, we must do so to solve the current and potential water problems we may face. I wound down the day wandering around Bath, taking in culture and nature at its best and yes I was at the Roman Baths and drank the spring water! The evening culminated in a fancy gala dinner at the Guildhall with great food, conversation and dancing.

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After a remarkable night of barn dancing, we reconvened on the 3rd day to wrap up the conference, discussing the challenges for a water world without boundaries – regulation and infrastructure, people and skills, climate change and population increase, household dwelling distribution, and the agriculture-water-energy nexus. As a young water professional, I strongly believe that to achieve our desired water-future, we all need to play our part; as the future does not come into fruition accidentally but is created by our decisions made and actions taken over time. I get a sense that ours is a tranche of water professionals that are keen to go into communities and take collective action around water whether social and/or technical. Attending the UK-IWA YWP conference has been a rewarding experience for me and reminds me of what is important in our field and in the grand scheme of things – to strive for an impact that makes the world a better place.

Next year, the UK-IWA YWP conference will be hosted in another city; when and where is yet to be announced but I strongly recommend you keep your ear to the ground!


Survey on Public Engagement in Water Utilities

As I’ve explained in my June blogpost, my PhD Research is on ‘Public Engagement in Water Utilities’.

I am therefore looking for feedback from professionals who are involved in public/stakeholder engagement about water?

Do you fit this criteria?

The Sheffield Water Centre would like to hear from you!

In order to participate, click the link below or copy and paste the link into your browser:

Life-lessons I’ve Learnt During the First Year of my PhD

Last October, I started my PhD. Whilst it has not been a venture for the faint hearted, I can honestly say that it has been a rewarding experience so far.

As someone with an academic background rooted in physical science, this PhD has been an opportunity to increase my knowledge base in the social sciences. Like many PhD Researchers, I have learnt the importance of reading, studying, attending conferences and networking with colleagues in academia and in the industry. Also, I have certainly learnt invaluable things about life and much more about myself.

I have come to realise that every PhD Researcher’s experience is unique, and a lot of hoops to be jumped depend on one’s own circumstances. So for myself, these two life lessons resonate with me due to my circumstances prior to and during my first year.

  1. Use your time wisely as though it were money

I spent the first half of my first year attending seminars and trainings on preparing for the PhD journey. Likewise, I racked up hours in mandatory lectures on core modules. I should point out that the majority of trainings and lectures are very useful, and I advise that these should not be shunned by students.

I assume that you have pragmatic and supportive Supervisors as I do with whom you have carefully conducted a tailored Training Needs Analysis. It is therefore okay to put your effective learning styles and time periods into consideration, and spend your time in places and on things you deem fit – assuming that you make good judgements as a PhD Researcher should.

Thus, in retrospect, I can recognise that time is invaluable and so is one’s intrinsic gauge of needs and contentment. Valuing my time pushed me even further to saying NO!

‘No I do not want to attend a certain training – its content is similar to one I already attended’. ‘No I do not want to meet up with colleagues – I’m going to have a sleep-in’. ‘No I will not attend that conference – the timing conflicts with something else which is important to me’. ‘No I do not want to add a certain goal to my list of research objectives – It is entirely out of my intended scope’. ‘No I do not have to live locally in order to study better – I am moving’.

  1. Worry is no virtue to have

Worry is indeed a misuse of the imagination. This is certainly the most important life lesson for me.

In the beginning, several mundane and important things bothered me – ‘Can I pull through? Will it work out? Am I over-studying? Am I under-studying? Why is a Jane/John Doe being a drag-down?’ So many academic and non-academic things weighed heavily on my mind.

However, in the last quarter of my first year, I had a reawakening. With more control of my time and improved emotional resilience, I began to do things more differently – being more aware of my environment and exploring real life. I suggest that one needs to have a life outside of the PhD, for the fear that you may lose a sense of yourself.

Whilst I recommend taking breaks and doing extra-curricular activities, I suggest that you define your boundaries so that you do not lose focus of your research. Nevertheless, as I am currently doing, I recommend revisiting that neglected hobby of yours – I took up photography again and I am reading more books. Take up a sport if that helps – I started running – have run 135km in the past two months. Make friends – there is a world of brilliant minds out there. Keep active and your imagination may stay stimulated – I do the games nights, the lunches and dinners, the networking events, the art workshops, the dance classes, walks in the parks, visits to museums and galleries, the libraries, the debate clubs!

Most importantly, never give up – focus on your goal to complete your PhD successfully. If somethings or some people send your emotions spiraling down, simply distance yourself from them. In most cases, you need to be in a good emotional state to do a PhD!

Water-Rich Water-Poor

Recently, I have been doing a lot of reading on global water challenges. Considering that water is essential to life but finite, the importance of water management cannot be overemphasized. The world we currently live in is at the mercy of rapid population growth and urbanization. Whilst these are not entirely detrimental to economic development, mismanagement in different sectors of the global economy is a reality. For instance, many have critiqued the water sector as failing to successfully tackle the issue of increasing water demand, attributing this to poor water management. Many have also suggested that water utilities need to look beyond relying on administrative control and technological solutions to water issues. There have been recommendations to involve people in water matters using a sort of communitarian approach that supports people to take on responsibilities as citizens who own, and use and/or manage water wisely.

But how does a water utility implement its approach to motivating water responsibility amongst the public?

A friend of mine recently relocated from a ‘developed’ to a ‘developing’ country. He was moping about his electricity bill. There had been no power supply to his house most days of the month.

So I asked ‘how about your water bill’.

He replied; ‘what water bill?’ ‘Where will that come from?’

To which I replied; ‘your water company of course, your utility, who is your water utility?’

I don’t know them. We drilled a borehole in my compound. So I think I am my own (pauses)… what did you call it? water utility? Yea, we are the water utility. I and my landlord – we own our water’…; he replied.

My friend gave a real-life insight into the crisis of water inequality that many fail to acknowledge. On one hand, there is the failure of water governance in many catchment areas around the world; on the other hand, is the complacency of the people who are at the receiving end – the water users.

Some water utilities in ‘developed’ countries consider passive and active ways to nudge the ‘Water-Rich Public’ to become owners of water who use water wisely, and also maintain ‘visible’ relationships with their utilities. But in neglected catchment areas of the world, most water utilities alienate themselves from their ‘Water-Poor Public’, forcing people to develop their own initiatives to own and manage water, by themselves.

To say the least, my friend ensued a sense of pride for ‘his water’. A self-proclamation that he ‘owns’ his water in partnership with his landlord is somewhat impressive yet worrisome. This goes against the underlying principles of the human right to water and sanitation. However, if one stripped away the fact that my friend’s water treatment, storage and supply are all ‘managed’ in-house (literarily!), the remaining intangible responsibility of ownership and personal connection to water is what water utilities in ‘developed’ countries spend resources trying to instil in their Water-Rich Public.

I am drawn to a careful conclusion that whilst the ‘Water-Poor’ environment is appalling, there are lessons in there that the ‘Water-Rich’ environment can draw from. It is no news that utilities operating in ‘Water-Poor’ catchment areas can also draw invaluable lessons from the utilities in ‘Water-Rich’ areas.

So what is a good starting point?

I think that rather than typical conversations on how to ‘change’ the public’s perception of water and their water behaviours/practices, more than ever before water utilities need to look inwards, re(assess) how their water management enacted through public (dis)engagement significantly shapes the public’s perception of water and their water behaviours/practices as well as their perception of their utilities.

Sometimes, actions contradict perspectives and intended outcomes of actions.

The Thursday That Reawakened My Past

Two weeks ago, I wrote this piece after making my research presentation and journeying from Sheffield to Liverpool afterwards…

It is a rainy Thursday morning. I temporarily park close to a BMW on Dart Square – a narrow Close opposite the Department. There’s a stranger in that car. Ignition turned on, we both are baiting a permanent parking space. Soon, some cars pull out. We pull into their spots. We exchange brief pleasantries.

Two hours later, I’m making my PhD presentation to a panel of blank faces. Phrases are in the air. ‘I don’t think… I can’t see how… I’m afraid that…’ Like a whirlwind, it comes to an end quick. I head back to the Postgraduate Research office, and respond to some flimsy emails. Distraught is creeping in, so I pack up and head to my car on Dart Square. I am wearing no jacket at all. I take short paces, letting the drizzle drench my black peplum dress. I stop, write a little note and leave it on the BMW – ‘I hope your day was better than mine…’.

Minutes later, I’m heading to Liverpool to attend a conference. I know not much of the city safe for a short story I wrote years ago in which I had referenced it as having docks and wide streets. Dear lazy writer, be creative. The name of the city is something-pool, what do you expect? – can’t be a desert eh!

The weather is absolutely beautiful. Raining has ceased. Streaks of sunrays snip through cloud sheets. I’m driving unusually slow, meandering through Snake Road in Derbyshire, allowing my mind to wander across the meadows. A lot of these remind me of when I was a very curious teenager, travelling a lot to unknown destinations – observing people and nature. The Canon camera in the trunk of my car tempts me to pull over and take some photographs, but I don’t. During my teenage years, technology had not significantly revolutionised millennial behaviour. What I enjoyed most about my explorations was the strangers and places, and locking their sights and stories in my memory. So today, I make a conscious decision not to take pictures. Rather, I drive even slower, taking in all of nature, updating my memory bank.

I ponder on what my hopes still are for the human that I am. I always wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I do not remember a time that I had imagined being otherwise. Whilst I was a primary school pupil, I was in a Miss’s class who strongly influenced the woman I dreamt of becoming. Her poise, and genuine care was overwhelming. She – Miss allowed me practise in class – coordinating readings and spelling drills, and writing notes on the chalkboard. Oh the pre-Y2K years! Beyond academics, Miss talked a lot to me about life – hygiene, men, career and money. Somewhat beyond my years but as I now make everyday life decisions, I find myself constantly asking ‘what would Miss do?’

Somewhere through life, I began refining my dreams from being a teacher to a lecturer. I now realise that although similar, both greatly differ. As a PhD researcher, it’s easy to be immersed in the bandwagon conversations in academia – impact: ‘how may papers have you published? how many conference proceedings have you featured in? how may citations do you have?’. But nothing about a lecturer is as undesirable as the lack of that ‘thing’ a teacher should have – that ‘thing’ that makes one construct one’s interaction with the world in a way that has good impact. That ‘thing’ that makes one construct ‘can’ts and don’ts’ in a way that another human visualizes the ‘cans and dos’ in them. Isn’t this how research gaps are formulated?

This Thursday reminds me to be at peace with my growth. I should not overhaul the core of who I am, neither should I embrace anything far left from the positive. Away from baiting a parking space, and all the other things that may not go as expected, I am awakened to retain the values I thrived on as a child – the curious one who never gives up. The one who visualizes ‘cans and dos’. The one who strangers may never forget. Today, I am reminded that my real impact is the positivity and inspiration I give out during and after my existence – and this may as well include those papers and conference proceedings! Just as much, it may not matter how soonest I become a lecturer or a God-knows-what, but what matters is the journey and the balance I keep between the bandwagon deliverables in life and the impact I have defined for myself, not by anyone else.

So here I am, in Liverpool for the first time. The city is beautiful, more than I imagined. My hotel is on Albert Dock – right across an expanse of water. It’s like I’ve been here before. My phone beeps, it’s the stranger in the BMW. Hello another stranger!

Investigating Public Engagement in Water Utilities

I thought it would be a great idea to pitch my research to readers, especially since I’m having my first year defense tomorrow and will have to explain why I think I am fit to proceed into my second year of PhD research although for this, I will be giving a rather short pitch. I may write about this experience another time…

I mentioned earlier in my first blog post that I am conducting my research in collaboration with the International Water Association (IWA). The IWA has a Public and Customer Communication Specialist Group (IWA PCCSG) which has played a key role in my research so far including providing industry links, and insights that have fed into my work. IWA PCCSG is an active proponent for hinging successful water management on stakeholder engagement, and the relevance of this group’s involvement in my study becomes clearer when you learn a bit more about my PhD research.

Water is such a unique commodity, yet so ‘fabricated’ into our everyday lives that not many people stop to think about the very important issues that threaten the thrift of water. Similarly, even the institutions managing water have not quite figured out robust ways to motivate people to stop, think and take action on reducing water demand. As far as 100BC (see 1), water issues were addressed using inflexible technological measures. This is not surprising when one considers that in centuries past, pertinent water issues revolved round supply and sanitation. Nevertheless, despite action being taken by some utilities to be adaptive in their water management approach, some rigid practices are still prevalent in water utilities today.

The world is rapidly changing and so are our water problems. Uncertainties tied to climate change and increasing population are proving the impact of these inflexible technological controls inadequate to tackle the issue of increasing water demand. In a water wise world, several water professionals (see 2 and 3) have thus recommended that the water sector becomes adaptive (operate differently and flexibly) in order to tackle the challenges of modern water; and public engagement is being promoted as one avenue for adaptation. People need to be put at the centre of water matters in a way that positions them as citizens who own water and are involved in making water decisions.

Several studies exist explaining the public’s behavioural and practical response to engagement initiated by water utilities. However, what is lacking in the literature is an understanding of the role that water utilities play to maximize water communications (i.e. foster engagement) in a manner that motivates the public to take actions that bring about change. In addition, it is rather unclear who water utilities consider as their publics (are they just bill-paying customers or do they include local citizens?). Many have also critiqued impact of public engagement as having no empirical evidence – a very valid judgment considering that advocating for an alternative approach should also include a proper demonstration of how the results produced by the approach!

In view of the global water demand issue, it is necessary to explore how water utilities are engaging the public on water issues, including how the impact of these engagement activities are measured.

So yes, people have a role to play in the conservation of water but what are water utilities doing to make sure people are better positioned to play their role?  This is what my research is about.

It is important to note that water conservation is not just about reducing water use. Water conservation revolves around every policy, managerial measure, or user practice that aims to preserve water and its quality (see 4). Looking away from the responsibility being placed on the public to conserve water, I am interested in understanding the responsibilities that water utilities have taken on. The focus of my research is therefore on finding out if utilities are exploiting social actors, message content, and various channels of communication in order to actively engage the public. In fact, these three dimensions are the bedrock of the conceptual model I’ve developed for my research.

If utilities are taking advantage of these dimensions, then how are these being exploited? For example, how is the public perceived – as buyers of water or as citizens who own water; how are water messages framed – under the ‘umbrella’ of increasing water rates or through the ‘lens’ of local contextual problems; and how are people engaged – through fine prints on water bills or in consultation events?

If we understand how public actors are perceived, how target water messages are constructed, and the numerous channels through which they are being engaged, then the ideal question to ask is ‘why are these elements of communication being ‘boxed’ in those ways’? For example, are people more likely to conserve water when their money is at stake or are people more likely to come together when there is a local problem they can identify with e.g. drought in the region or problems with the local river?’ The essence of asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions is to understand how actions and interactions vary in different utilities and how these are shaped by their perception of water and of the public. There are more alternative communication channels used by water utilities, and so are the ‘frames’ through which water utilities present their water messages. These mentioned herein are few examples.

The way that water communication is constructed and reconstructed is therefore linked to a wider subject which I am examining – the public engagement approaches. Without overwhelming you with the jargon, I am exploring the public engagement approaches appealing to individual and communal interests, and using the conceptual model developed for my research, I am looking at the various ways that water utilities position themselves as adaptive and non-adaptive within these two approaches. For example, a water utility which engages the public on water demand issues by encouraging them to reduce their water use in order to save money on their water bills may be attempting to appeal to appeal to the individual interest of the customers. In contrast, a water utility which engages the public on water demand issues by educating them on the importance of protecting water and the environment may be attempting to appeal to the communal interest of the customers.

To do this, I am looking to work with a number of water utilities in different countries – administering surveys, examining engagement messages on their websites and conducting extensive interviews with some of their staff. This will be aimed at understanding their perception, organizational culture and practices in relation to public engagement on water demand.

At this point, I’m actively seeking contacts in water utilities and any volunteers for participation or referrals would be really helpful!


  1. Dooge, J. (2009) Fresh Surface Water. Oxford: EOLSS Publishers/ UNESCO.
  2. Kampragou, E., Lekkas, D., and Assimacopoulos, D. (2011) ‘Water Demand Management: Implementation Principles and Indicative Case Studies’. Water and Environment Journal, 25 (4), 466-476.
  3. Mirza, M., and Mustafa, D., (2016) ‘Access, Equity and Hazards: Highlighting a Socially Just and Ecologically Resilient Perspective on Water Resources’. Sustainable Development and Disaster Risk Reduction, 143-159.
  4. Pereira, L., Cordery, I., and Iacovides, I. (2012). ‘Improved Indicators of Water Use Performance and Productivity for Sustainable Water Conservation and Saving’. Agricultural Water Management, 108, 39-51.