Winning With Winnie

Scottish Water opens eyes, and sewer pipes, with a multimedia campaign that tells consumers what not to flush and the trouble improper disposal can cause.
Winning With Winnie
A stuffed Winnie the Pooh backed up a sewer drain in East Kilbride.

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You might have seen the photo by now: a large Winnie the Pooh plush toy blocking a sewer drain in East Kilbride, Scotland.

The photo from Scottish Water, which made the viral media and Internet rounds in February, was ripe for playful headlines and jokes from late-night comedians. And the publicity was just what Scottish Water wanted.

The photo was one of a series showing the oddest items found in the agency’s sewer network — like a child’s bike, a goldfish, a snake, a pair of jeans, false teeth and even a live badger. Scottish Water released the photos as part of a campaign to educate consumers on the need to keep the wastewater system running efficiently.

Scottish Water, which provides water and wastewater services to some 2.4 million households in Scotland, says it dealt with 40,000 blockages to its drains and sewer network in 2013, an estimated 80 percent caused by large objects; cooking fat, grease and oil; cotton balls; and “flushable” wipes. According to William Ancell, senior press officer, the irresponsible disposal of items costs the utility more than 7 million pounds ($5 million U.S.) each year.

“We believe that the majority of these are avoidable and the result of inappropriate items being flushed down the toilet and down sinks,” says Ancell. “The cost of advertising to our customers we believe will create efficiencies in the long term and be worth the investment.”

Listening to customers

Ancell says the campaign is a direct response to customers saying it’s a high priority to reduce sewer overflows inside homes and in the streets. Blockages are often an issue at the utility’s wastewater treatment facilities, as well.

“Incidents of flooding are directly linked to chokes [blockages] in Scottish Water’s sewer network,” says Ancell. “When a choke occurs, the wastewater flow from properties and drains backs up to the easiest point of discharge.”

Utility officials discussed how to tackle the problem and determined that advertising and education were the best approaches. They first used cartoons as a modern, light-hearted way to get people thinking more about the impact of their actions. “We put the ‘Water Cycle’ at the heart of the adverts, as this translated well to our customers’ understanding of what we do as a business,” says Ancell.

The utility determined that a multichannel approach would get the best impact. The campaign combines TV, radio, outdoor and online advertising, along with local media publicity and community outreach.

“We’ve had a great response from the public, elected members of the government and local councils, and other key stakeholders, such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency,” says Ancell. “We are always looking at how we can get the best value out of our campaigns, and are now attempting social media advertising in the form of promoted tweets and geographically targeted Facebook advertisements. We also encourage employees to use their social media presence to further the messages on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.”

Pooh on the world stage

One thing the utility didn’t expect was the viral response to its photo release. Sensing the opportunity to capitalize, the press team went into overdrive to make sure a unified message went out to all requesting information.

“It has been a pleasant surprise, and a great opportunity that we made the most of,” says Ancell. “After the story went viral, there were a few days where the press office was just inundated with calls, interview requests, photo requests and journalists generally wanting fresh copy so they could put their own spin on it.” Ancell coordinated the responses and made sure to maximize each coverage opportunity.

Besides warning homeowners about disposing of items properly, Scottish Water’s campaign highlights simple water-saving tips, such as turning off taps while brushing teeth. “School visits and education have been featured in the past and continue to be a focus for us,” says Ancell. “We have also visited universities, parent/baby groups, and midwives to spread the message. We have a dedicated effluent team whose members meet with businesses across the country on best practices for wastewater treatment and disposal.”

The utility encourages its operations staff members to speak to customers when they are out clearing blockages. Information is sent by mail to homes in repeat problem areas. The utility’s employee volunteer program also gives staff members two days a year to volunteer in their communities.

“Some have used it to go out to community groups and schools to promote our campaign messages with a presentation on what not to flush or put down the sink,” says Ancell. “This work will continue to support the campaign year-round.”

The utility also has a long-running “Bag It & Bin It” campaign listing items to place in the trash instead of flushing. The website serves as an information and education resource.

“We believe that to change customer behavior, we need regular communication through these kinds of campaigns,” says Ancell. “We are reviewing how we sustain the communication of the messages year-round.”   


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