When the public is asked to approve water or sewer rate increases, it helps if they know where the money is going.
That was the reasoning behind the rebranding campaign in which the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority became DC Water. “Wastewater treatment is out of sight and out of mind,” says George Hawkins, general manager of the agency. “Nobody thinks about it, and the public often doesn’t recognize its importance.
“Now we have more stringent effluent requirements and a remarkably old, like Lincoln-administration old, collection system. If we don’t connect with the public, fundamentally, how are we going to operate over the next 10 to 20 years?”
Ultimately, Hawkins hopes that when customers are asked for a $10 a month increase, they’ll be so supportive they’ll offer up $20 instead. He knows that’s unrealistic, but he still aims for that kind of public support. “If it’s a fundamental program, the public will find a way to support it,” he says.
Involved from the get-go
The agency announced the rebranding campaign at a press conference and asked the public for input in the form of a contest, offering a cash award of $2,500 for creating the new logo and slogan.
Hawkins admits there was some pushback from professional graphic artists who wanted more input, but the authority was determined to involve the public as a way to encourage citizens to think about what the agency does and how important it is.
There were 178 entries. Public affairs staff reviewed each one and ranked them on a score sheet. Hawkins and his staff then reviewed the top 20. “We liked parts of three of them, this part from one, that part from another,” says Hawkins. “Our team did a final design based on a set of designs from the contestants, so the three winners divided up the cash award.”
The tagline, “Water is Life” originated in-house — it was a signature line Hawkins used in his e-mails, and it seemed to fit with the water drop logo and DC Water’s message of serving the public and protecting the environment.
The agency kept the final design under wraps until the unveiling ceremony outside the five-story operations building on June 15. There, staff members revealed the 7-foot-tall backlit, solar-powered DC Water sign mounted on the side of the building. For commuters traveling on I-295 it is hard to miss.
Mayor Adrian Fenty was on hand, posing for photos with Wendy the Waterdrop, the DC Water mascot. A presentation reminded the public that water and wastewater affect every part of their lives and that everyone is intertwined with DC Water services.
The rebranding campaign cost about $180,000. While that seems like a lot of money, Hawkins stresses that it’s a matter of scale: the agency runs on a $400 million operating budget and a $400 million capital budget. Hawkins believes a rebranding program could easily be scaled down to fit the budget of a smaller municipality or utility.
Still, Hawkins knew the sensitivity. “We understood that it was the ratepayers’ money and that we had to spend it carefully,” he says. The new brand was rolled out slowly. “Things are not being changed all at once,” says Hawkins. “We have more than 500 vehicles, so changes in the decals are made when the vehicles are in the shop for something else.”
That includes Hawkins’ car, which now displays the new logo along with his title, on both sides. “It connects me to people,” he says. “They honk and wave. I do have to drive more considerately now, but the payoff is worth it.”
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Because the authority didn’t legally change the name, existing letterhead with the old name can be used up. When new stock is ordered, it will have the new logo. The authority went one green step further: The new stationary uses soy ink and a higher recycled content.
Employee uniforms also show the new logo, but all that took was switching of patches. All in all, Hawkins looked to simplify the transition.
To the streets
Hawkins and his team didn’t rely on the branding campaign to garner support for their projects: They took their presentation to the streets. “We did meetings everywhere and brought in a lot of different technical people,” he says. “That way we were prepared. If someone came to the meeting and asked a question, there was someone there who could answer it.”
While “everywhere” may be an exaggeration, it’s not much of a stretch. From mid-April to mid-May, the group visited nearly 30 locations, from meetings with advisory neighborhood commissioners to environmental education fairs and police department youth events.
Wendy the Waterdrop mingled then and continues to, from handing out water at DC triathlons to helping keep visitors cool at a misting tent at the mall. During these public events, Hawkins made an effort to talk with the customers. “It’s our responsibility to connect with the public,” he says.
Besides building public support, the rebranding had another benefit: Morale improved. “Our thought about the industry is that the people who work for us are on the side of angels,” says Hawkins. “The campaign is meaningful to our people because we’re proud of what we do.”
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