The planned United Utilities hosepipe bans, which was due to affect seven million people in the north-west of England, has just been called off. Ben Hayman, managing partner of Given, discusses why we need a smarter approach to water shortages.
The threat of the ban betrayed a clear struggle for water companies – as they sought to balance consumer consumption with the driest start to summer in modern records. It also came hot on the heels of the Environment Agency’s first major report on water resources in England and its findings which revealed the need for urgent action or the consequences of serious water supply shortages by 2050. The issue of water as a finite resource is becoming a pressing one for the UK, set to exacerbated further by population growth and extreme weather resulting from climate change. While a hosepipe ban may seem a logical response to water shortages, joint research by the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Southampton and Lancashire suggested that fewer than 20% of people with gardens ever use a hosepipe to water it and the Energy Saving Trust estimates that, of the average 142 litres of water used per person per day, only 1% goes on the garden and 1% on the car. Aside from water companies themselves tackling the huge issue of leakage – United Utilities which was set to impose the hosepipe ban has been accused of ‘wasting’ 430 million litres of water every day due to leaks- it seems ‘the elephant in the room’ is household’s daily water use, consumer perceptions of water as a product and motivating water-saving behaviour. As Emma Howard Boyd, the Environment Agency chair said; ‘We need to change our attitudes to water use.’
The Environment Agency’s report showed that on average, consumers use 140 litres of water every day in England, a target which the agency would like to see reduced to 100 litres over the next 20-25 years. The 40 litre reduction, which NGOs such as Waterwise see as ‘do-able,’ is based on the insight that the shortfall is largely being driven by households simply not being careful about the water they use. Household water wastage is one of the keys to long-term water shortage issues, and is also one of the biggest challenges, especially in terms of helping consumers understand that their water use is a real issue and that they can make a genuine impact. In our research with UK consumers we have found that they lack the same respect for water as a product compared with those from Europe or further afield, and in a country famed for our precipitation, it is easy to understand why. The inability to connect our consumption of water with any sort of negative impact seems almost a part of our culture, compounded by the history of its supply as a state-run utility (and now a series of privately operated monopolies) and the simplistic view of the water cycle which many of us remember being taught at school. This has created a lazy, and sometimes thoughtless, relationship with water as a product which in other countries commands more respect. Breaking through this barrier is a real challenge – not least as consumers may view this as being given a new job to do or thing to worry about. This is why, when it comes to household water saving, it is critical that water companies, NGOs, governments and brands think laterally about how to change consumer behaviour around water usage.
A lateral approach is a critical insight from our work with Anglian Water to devise and implement a campaign to specifically engage Newmarket residents in water saving. Launched in September 2017, ‘Smarter Drop’ was primarily a consumer behaviour change initiative which used Newmarket as a ‘test bed’ to drive radical reductions in household water use, as well as improve awareness and perceptions of the Anglian Water brand. The project is equipping and galvanising Newmarket residents to save water through a mix of educational initiatives and the trialling of all sorts of different elements of Anglian Water’s product and service proposition – from leak spotting drones to new storage solutions. In just nine months, the project has already seen households save considerably in terms of their daily water use and has transformed consumer perceptions of water saving.
These are the three main insights from the consumer engagement element of the project – which had a goal of reducing household consumption by 10% over the course of a year in both a sustainable and scalable way.
1/ Provide communication hooks and lead with money-saving
In February 2018, as part of the project, Anglian Water ran ‘The Big Save,’ a water-saving challenge involving 200 Newmarket households. The households (primarily families) were asked to save water for an entire month and equipped with practical advice and ideas, but not technological intervention. Participants were asked to save as much water as they could and a selection of compelling communication ‘hooks’ were also devised to help inspire and sustain motivation. Comms hooks included; ‘Become a saver – save water and money,’ ‘Save water to compete with your neighbours and win £100’ and ‘Save water and win something for your community.’ Among the residents participating, there was also a control group who were not given a motivating hook and were simply asked to save as much water as possible.
Households that were given a compelling reason or ‘hook’ to change their behaviour were the most significant water savers. Interestingly, water saving did not diminish over the month for any of the groups. In fact, they got better at saving water once they had got into their stride and developed handy tips and tricks around the home for themselves. Crucially, these were the households whose approaches worked specifically for their individual family and routines.
Giving consumers a compelling reason, in this case, one that involved a money-saving element, was a key inspirer for behaviour change and the additional focus of a short, sharp water saving week or month worked and continued to work over time.
2/ Build status around water saving
The Smarter Drop campaign enabled Anglian Water to work at a ‘hyperlocal’ level with residents. The initiative was high-profile locally with a Smarter Drop shop providing a hub in a central location on the main high street and targeted initiatives bringing the message to residents in specific pockets of the community. The overall effect was local awareness which bred household competitiveness and an understanding that friends and neighbours were pulling together for the same cause. This helped build an association around water saving being a ‘smart’ behaviour.
Generally, there is no positive association with water saving behaviour amongst consumers. In contrast, if you leave the lights on in your home or use air conditioning in the car with the windows open you would probably be seen as foolish or wasteful. Water wastage doesn’t have the equivalent stigma which is why it can be challenging to engage people in hosepipe bans as most consumers would not view using a hosepipe as excessive or representative of bad behaviour.
The opposite of this is making people feel like they are making smart choices, celebrating good behaviour and giving people who are doing good real status. This is possible when you are working at a very targeted, local level as with Smarter Drop in Newmarket.
3/ Engage through a community approach
The Smarter Drop project has been implemented through community-focused activations which involve direct and natural contact with local residents. The project and its water-saving messaging, has conveniently come to them, tailoring its approach according to different customer groups and engaging them as they go about their daily lives. A ‘Smarter Drop Shop’ was opened in a prime location on Newmarket’s high street, providing a convenient hub to showcase innovative water saving products and allowing Anglian Water staff to offer face to face support and advice – the physical shop also facilitated specific engagement with vulnerable customers, notably those with disabilities and those challenged financially. For the project’s ‘water pledges,’ a solid engagement level was achieved thanks to a strategic tie-up with Newmarket’s largest supermarket (Tesco) when footfall was at peak during the Easter holidays – children were given water-saving pledge passports and a water magician was used to attract attention. In addition, a designated Communications Engagement Manager, based in Newmarket, has built specific relationships with the Council Executive, schools and community groups, driving further awareness and engagement through this ‘hyperlocal’ approach.
The purpose opportunity for water brands
The threat of a national water shortage, while daunting, also offers a clear and timely purpose opportunity for water brands. The last 12 months have seen many of the main water companies getting considerable amounts of bad press and there is a growing lobby for renationalisation. Having a clear purpose tied-to and tackling our impending water shortage will help position the role of the water company more accurately in the minds of consumers. Not only will this serve to ensure households have a more active relationship with their water use, it will also build positive brand perceptions which will drive differentiation and consumer loyalty. The positive impact of the Smarter Drop initiative on perceptions of Anglian Water has already been seen amongst residents, both in terms of brand ‘warmth’ and brand recognition. Some see purpose as a transient trend or branding agency hype. Our experience is that true brand purpose has transformative potential and a reciprocal quality which benefits both brands, consumers and the wider world.
Ben Hayman is Managing Partner of Given, ‘a brand purpose agency that helps businesses grow by doing good’