Importance of Branding Your Project: It’s What People Say About You Behind Your Back

A corporation would never consider selling a product or launching a campaign without a brand. So, why should a water or wastewater utility be any different? After all, public utilities have managers, subject matter experts, customer service representatives, field technicians, finance departments and products – not unlike corporations. Building the value proposition for water or wastewater service is currently a focus in the industry, but the technical nature of utility operations and projects make it particularly difficult to build strong relationships with stakeholders. Branding your utility and your projects can help bridge that gap, increase trust and credibility, and support the rest of your communications.


What is Branding?

The term “branding” can be confusing because most people only think about logos and captivating graphics. While those are key to a successful brand, branding should communicate your value to your customers and tell your story. In water and wastewater utilities, branding might include naming a facility or infrastructure program, finding a more public-friendly title for a major planning document, or creating a visual brand for an entire utility.


Why is Branding Important?

It’s a matter of branding yourself or being branded. Customers will form perceptions and categorize brands, and often, brand perceptions are difficult to change. Ultimately, branding creates an identity and persona for an otherwise technical or impersonal topic. We see it in potable reuse with projects branded as “Pure Water” and in integrated water resource planning with projects branded as “One Water.”


The Brand Development Process

Creating a brand and building brand awareness does not happen without deliberate strategy and space for creativity. The ideal creative process will allow for both brainstorming and creativity, but also iterative structure and decision-making. The process does not end with the graphic design aspect, though. A brand can only be effective when it is adopted, used correctly and marketed. The brand development process includes four major steps:


1. Objective Identification and Research

A brand should convey the essence and identity of the utility or program. Start by looking at what is most important to your utility. Are there certain core values that stand out when you think about the utility or what you want stakeholders to identify when they interact with you? Is there a mission statement or vision statement that should inform your brand and what it needs to communicate? As a team, you need to define what will be included in a brand, and what, if anything, should remain from any current branding.

While identifying your mission, vision and values is important to the initial planning, these terms will serve as guiding principles for the brand and the message your brand conveys to your audiences.

Consider what you are promising customers. Often called the “brand promise,” consider the specific set of features, benefits, and services provided by the organization to the customer, including attributes, benefits, values, and culture. For water utilities, the brand promise may be “to deliver vital projects on time, under budget and supply clean, safe, reliable water.”

Next, take time to understand your audiences. Internal audiences, like utility elected officials, management, and staff, may have valuable insights about how they view the organization and its values. Engaging internal audiences in the information-gathering process may bring to light pride in aspects that could be helpful to brand development. In addition, engaging internal audiences may also build morale by involving staff beyond the typical inner circle of elected officials or upper management.

Understanding the perceptions of external audiences can be useful in figuring out where the utility stands with public brand recognition, which values stand out the most to the public and where there might be gaps in understanding or awareness.

According to Forbes, 64 percent of consumers say that shared values help them create a trusted relationship with a brand. Using formal and informal methods, from stakeholder discussions to surveys or focus groups, to gauge understanding and concerns can help you understand how your priorities do or do not line up with your stakeholders’ perceptions.


2. Brainstorming and Idea Generation

As information is gathered, and ideas are generated, it is important for the team to agree on priorities for a path forward in the brand development process. Seeking agreement within the team about which values and concepts must be reflected in the brand will be critical before moving on to the design process. Too often, the design process begins before priorities are clearly identified, and then reviews are too subjective to recover consensus.


3. Concepts and Revisions

The concepts – from sketches to final, digital designs – are where the ideas come to life. The brand concept is the experience and emotion you leave with the customer, including sight, feel, communication and voice.

The Visual Brand

When it comes to branding, people tend to think about the visual brand of an organization, including the logo mark and name. A logo is a symbol or other design adopted by an organization to identify its products and services, and should be timeless, creative, simple, and tell a story with an icon or color. A name should tell the customer quickly what the service is, without being complex or confusing.

The Tagline

The tagline supports the visual brand, giving a few words to describe the mission or purpose. A tagline can be the opportunity to define the brand beyond the logo and name, but if it detracts, contrasts or muddles the brand, the tagline is not effective. Understanding your audiences will help you identify which words resonate best in order to create the most effective tagline.

The Look and Feel

Often, a brand is more than just a logo and a tagline. It represents the organization’s spirit, and serves as a nonverbal reminder of core values like professionalism, trust, integrity and quality. What do your brand’s color scheme and font represent, and how do they make your audiences feel?

Because brand development is an iterative process, it can be beneficial to start with more than one designed concept and evaluate them based on how well they would resonate with the audiences, uphold the core values and create identity.


4. Use and Marketing

A brand is only as effective as its repeated use. In the marketing industry, the “Rule of Seven” says that a single customer must see a brand seven times before it becomes committed to memory. That means that your brand potentially needs to be incorporated into how you do business, how you talk and what your customers see in your communications.

How can you ensure your organization is using the brand – and using it correctly? A brand style guide should be developed for use by internal audiences. The style guide should include all standards for the logo, colors and graphic elements associated with the brand. It should also reference how the brand can and cannot be used, and by whom.

Consider all of the ways the brand might need to be implemented in order to avoid any lingering, out-of-date branding that external audiences could encounter. Does letterhead and signage need to be revised or does your utility bill template need to be modified? Do different departments need to be notified? Is there any extra coordination needed to update print and online resources?

Finally, the strategy for launching your finished brand should be tailored to the tone you want to set with your internal and external audiences. Identifying the right-sized methods for unveiling the brand need to account for sensitivities around spending public agency dollars on creative elements. Perhaps it makes more sense to simply begin using the brand on materials in word-of-mouth reference, without any formal unveiling, or perhaps it makes sense to get more mileage out of the brand by launching it in conjunction with a milestone like an infrastructure program groundbreaking event.


Why Branding Matters

Increasing public understanding of the value of water and wastewater service through branding a utility or program will be key as cities across the nation struggle with asking ratepayers to use less while paying more. A brand development process can be thoughtful and strategic, while also serving to build trust and credibility, enhance communication and create an identity for an otherwise technical or impersonal topic. After all, what your audiences say about your organization behind your back may be a reflection of the strength of your brand.



Shaoolian, Gabriel. Forbes. Aug. 10, 2018. 10 Marketing, Web Design & Branding Statistics To Help You Prioritize Business Growth Initiatives

This post includes content from the manuscript submitted to the Utility Management Conference by the Water Environment Federation, and presentation at the Utility Management Conference held in February 2020 in Anaheim, Calif.