Less Is Better

El Paso Water Utilities succeeds with a fresh campaign to get customers to reduce their water consumption.
Less Is Better
This still picture was taken from an ad in the El Paso Water Utilities “Less Is the New More” campaign, emphasizing watering schedules.

When your organization provides water to a major city in the middle of the second-largest desert in North America, a conservation message never gets old — all that might change is the delivery. That's why the theme of the El Paso (Texas) Water Utilities' "Less Is the New More" campaign seems fitting.

Christine Montoya, vice president of marketing and communication, says EPWU has been conducting water conservation campaigns for more than two decades, but in the face of a record drought and a growing population, it can't afford to back off.

"Less Is the New More" launched in January 2012, and by the end of September, customers had reduced consumption by 635 million gallons versus the same period in 2011. That's roughly the amount of water delivered during an average week in 2010.

Outside assistance

Located at the far western tip of Texas, El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, a historic Army base that has grown rapidly in recent years. The city is also across the border from Juarez, Mexico, and people from that city have been crossing the border to flee drug violence.

"Between the new people and the drought, we wanted to reinvigorate our message," says Montoya. "It had to be dramatic; it had to get people's attention. We didn't want to preach to people. We wanted to excite them about the possibilities."

Montoya worked with The Laster Group, a local advertising agency that came up with the campaign tagline and concept and helped incorporate them into the utility's media and public relations outreach and advertising. The agency designed the new campaign to grab people's attention quickly. The catchphrase was just the first step, and the next key decision was the look of the campaign.

"This is probably the most different approach that we've taken," Montoya says. "One thing that probably makes it the most different is that there isn't even a drop of water in some of the materials you see with this campaign. We took a risk with going for something different, but the result has been very positive."

On the tube

The most visible element may be a series of three TV commercials running on local television stations in English and Spanish (www.epwu.org/multimedia/). The TV, radio and online/mobile ads feature comedic looks at people who overindulge in everything from burgers to makeup (for granny) and spray cologne (for a teenage boy). The idea is to contrast "too much of a good thing" with the EPWU theme of "Less Is the New More."

The $100,000 budget covers media time, print ads and posters on buses and bus stop shelters. EPWU also co-sponsored the city's annual downtown Neon Desert Music Festival, which attracted 15,000 people. The utility set up booths around the festival site and handed out bottles of tap water with information about conservation. "We saw our reach on Facebook go through the roof the week after the festival," Montoya says.

Montoya also got the word through EPWU staffers' appearances on news and talk shows and through cooperative initiatives with media. For example, the El Paso Times listed each day's water usage. "And if we went over the target, we would let them know, 'OK, we need to conserve more,'" Montoya says. "We also worked with the TV weather shows to keep people informed of the watering schedule."

Home Depot outlets have been strong partners: "We did weekend workshops on everything from planting to repairing leaks and installing new fixtures. We put signs on plants that have low water demand and put Water Smart signs on plumbing fixtures like low-flow showerheads."

Making it easy

The program offered easy ways to conserve water, from using food dye to detect leaky toilets to tracking down leaks in outdoor faucets. EPWU also offers free water audits in customers' homes.

The campaign also directed attention to EPWU's TechH2O Center, which combines a hands-on museum with a research and conference center. On weekdays, the center hosts tours for schools, churches, day camps and more. On Saturdays, the center's indoor and outdoor displays are open to the public; children who have taken tours return with their parents. The utility also offers free workshops on topics from water-conserving landscapes to rainwater harvesting.

El Paso's population was 665,000 as of July 2011, up from the 2010 Census figure of 649,000. The utility finished 2010 with 201,593 retail and wholesale customers, up from 169,317 in 2001. Despite that growth, the city reduced its water pumped from 39 billion gallons in 2001 to 37 billion gallons in 2010.

As drought continues, water conservation remains a top priority, and EPWU decided to continue sending the message, "Less Is the New More," in 2013. "We're preparing for the worst next year and we're trying to be proactive," Montoya says. That includes efforts to maintain a diversified portfolio of water sources: "We view conservation as a water source."


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