Names Do Matter

Clean Water Services in Oregon sees significant and tangible benefits from naming itself for the end product, rather than the raw material.
Names Do Matter
Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager, Clean Water Services.

The agency in Oregon now called Clean Water Services was born in 1970 as the Unified Sewerage Agency (USA).

The name fit. In 1970, residents voted to unify more than 20 wastewater treatment plants operated by more than a dozen cities and private developments, creating one of the nation’s first regional sewer utilities. Unfortunately, the name didn’t resonate with people and, as the USA expanded its role in protecting water resources, the name no longer reflected all the agency did.

So, in 2001, USA became Clean Water Services (CWS). The impact of the change was significant and tangible, according to Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager. The name alone had a substantial effect on public awareness of the agency and its mission and on customer satisfaction with its performance.

Jockers talked about the reason behind the name change and the benefits that grew from it in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: In brief, what is the history of your agency?

Jockers: In the late 1960s, there were 26 wastewater treatment plants in Washington County, operated by cities, private development groups and a mishmash of organizations, and they were not operating very effectively. The state stepped in and imposed a building moratorium until the county could pull its act together in terms of handling wastewater. That led to a vote among county residents in 1970 to unify all the sewerage agencies into one organization. The Unified Sewerage Agency was voted into existence by a two-to-one margin in February 1970.

TPO: How did the new agency go about consolidating treatment in the county?

Jockers: We took 24 of the 26 treatment plants offline and built two regional facilities to bring a higher level of treatment to bear. We also built the trunk lines, the pump stations and other ancillary facilities. We spent the 1970s building the infrastructure and bringing the collection and treatment systems up to a standard. Most of that was done by 1980.

TPO: Did the agency’s responsibilities extend beyond wastewater treatment?

Jockers: Yes. As we moved into the 1980s, there was an increased focus on the impact of urban runoff. In 1990 we worked with our 12 member cities to start a stormwater utility to address urban nonpoint pollution. In addition, in the late 1990s, there was an Endangered Species Act listing for winter steelhead in the rivers. At the request of the cities, we took on Endangered Species Act response planning. We also began working with municipal and industrial water providers and agricultural irrigators to coordinate integrated water resource planning to determine how best to meet and balance the sometimes competing demands for water in the basin.

TPO: What was the original impetus behind the name change to Clean Water Services?

Jockers: At the end of the 1990s, it was clear that we were doing much more than sewage treatment. We were really a watershed organization. And from a communication standpoint, it’s fundamentally flawed to define your business based on your raw material. We wanted to define our business based on what we produced. Utilities like ours don’t have big marketing budgets or advertising budgets — our most important marketing tool is our name. That name should communicate what we do and what we care about, and that is clean water.

TPO: How did you go about the process of making the name change?

Jockers: We went through a very deliberative process that took a year and a half. It started with conversations with our board of directors, our management team and our employees, talking about what we did and what we cared about, and how we wanted people to see us in five years or 10 years.

From these conversations, we established a name change framework to guide the development of more appropriate brand. We hired a local marketing consultant and graphic artist to help us look at options for names and various design treatments. We took that back to our board and management to narrow the list. When we got to the final three, we did focus groups with customers, asking, “Do you understand what this means? How do you react to this name?”

TPO: What were some of the alternate names that were considered?

Jockers: They included Watershed Services, Watershed Resources, and Clean Water Resources, in addition to Clean Water Services. We didn’t find any fatal flaws in those names, although there was certainly a stronger preference for “clean water.” Our board made the final decision in favor of Clean Water Services. We changed the name to coincide with the start of our fiscal year on July 1, 2001.

TPO: What needed to be done to implement the name change?

Jockers: In the year and a half leading up to the change, we did an inventory of every place our name showed up. We stopped ordering letterhead, we stopped printing new brochures, we stopped ordering new business cards, all so that we could make the change within our existing replacement cycles and minimize the cost.

Some things were changed over time. For example, our fleet includes 73 vehicles, ranging from backhoes to pickup trucks. We gradually phased in the new identifiers on the sides of those vehicles. We also developed a set of name usage and design standards — how the name and logo were to be presented on signs, on vehicles, on letterhead, in email signatures and in other forms of communication.

TPO: How long did it take for the name and visual identity to be fully phased in?

Jockers: I would say that within a year or two, most of the old identity had been washed out. We did have a handful of long-time operators who took pride in the old name — some people walked around for years in overalls and hats that said Unified Sewerage Agency.

TPO: What did you observe about the effect of the name change on public perceptions of your agency?

Jockers: We had been the Unified Sewerage Agency for 31 years, and we served 430,000 people, yet our name recognition was very low. Relatively few people knew who we were or what we did. Our name recognition was hovering around 30 percent, based on our Customer Service and Satisfaction Surveys, which we have done every two years since 1988. Today, based on our latest survey in 2012, Clean Water Services has close to 80 percent name recognition among our customers. They don’t necessarily know in detail what we do, but they are aware of us and, more important, believe we do a good job and have a positive impact on the community.

TPO: Is that improvement solely the result of the name change? Or were other factors involved?

Jockers: With the name change, we did start a more aggressive public service campaign. Our stormwater permit includes a requirement to do public education related to people’s impact on water resources. So as part of that education campaign, we certainly got our name out there more than before.

But I also think the name Clean Water Services simply resonates better than Unified Sewerage Agency. Within five years of becoming CWS, we documented through our surveys that we had established a very distinct positive identity with our customers. Within those five years, we found 78 percent of our customers believed that CWS was doing a good to excellent job — a significantly higher rating than USA ever received in its 31-year history.

We were still the water treatment provider, still taking used water, treating it and putting it back into the river, but now our customers had a very different perception of our role in the community.

TPO: What other positive outcomes did you see from the name change?

Jockers: The name change has helped us in terms of partnering. We do a lot of partnering in the agricultural community, and when Clean Water Services reaches out to the Soil and Water Conservation District, it’s an easier initial phone call than if we were the Unified Sewerage Agency.

The same is true in our partnering with community groups and nonprofits. Over the past several years, we have planted more than 700,000 trees and shrubs and restored close to 50 miles of stream bank. A lot of that has been done through relationships with nonprofit groups. It’s been easier to initiate those conversations because our name says clean water and people know what we care about.

TPO: What about internally? Would you say the name helped instill a greater sense of pride among employees?

Jockers: At first some people were hesitant, but within a short time, for the most part, people did hold their heads up higher. When neighbors talked over the fence and asked, “Where do you work?” people were proud to say, “Clean Water Services.” Whereas if they said “Unified Sewerage Agency,” there was a need for lots of explanation of what they actually did. And sometimes the other person’s initial reaction was, “Yuck!”

TPO: Does the name help people more appreciate the full breadth of your agency’s services?

Jockers: It does help communicate a broader set of competencies than did the old name. Increasingly, our business is about resource recovery. Our treatment plants are really factories that take in used water and produce three products.

They produce clean water that either goes to the river or is used for irrigation. They are also producing energy — through cogeneration with biogas we currently meet about 20 to 25 percent of our treatment plant energy needs, and a new cogeneration project coming online this year at our Durham plant will boost that to almost 50 percent for that facility.

Then there’s nutrient recovery. We do land application of biosolids, and we have more demand than supply. In 2008 at our Durham plant, we installed the first commercial nutrient recovery facility in North America with Ostara. In 2011, we installed a similar project at our Rock Creek plant that at the time was the largest in the world. When fully operational, those facilities will produce about 2,000 tons per year of a slow-release commercial fertilizer called Crystal Green, which Ostara purchases from us.

In 2012 we also launched a residential blend fertilizer called Clean Water GROW, sold in garden stores. It’s an all-purpose, full-blend plant food that contains about one-third Crystal Green and two-thirds other nutrients.

TPO: What would you say to leaders of other clean-water utilities that might be pondering changing to more positive agency names or plant names?

Jockers: Our industry needs to think hard on how we talk about what we do. Especially given the number of regulations and demands being put on us it’s more important than ever for people to understand what we do, and it’s more important than ever for us to push innovation and partnerships as we deliver our services.   


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