In this article regarding our industry’s future, I want to focus on just one, and perhaps the most important, element—the consumer. There are some things we know about consumer expectations, and then there are a lot of things we think we know or we just assume. We know that, for instance, consumers like our claims to be presented clearly and simply.
Keeping it simple
They understand bad taste and bad odor or staining because claims associated with these conditions are both simple and easy to verify. This is why the vast majority of our industry’s products are sold to solve these kinds of problems. Simple, clear and honest.
But there are other factors that impact on consumer expectations, too. Science is one. As our scientists and doctors learn more about health threats in our environment, this information finds its way into the media and, from there, into regulations and laws. The consumer plays a role in this mechanism as well.
As an industry that deals with consumer conveniences as well as health and environmental issues, our challenge is to keep it simple no matter how complex our technologies may be. It’s easy to do this when our basic claim is to remove bad taste or odor or to soften water. But consumers often expect more than this. They often expect our products to also handle their health concerns.
Assessing the market
At the Water Quality Association (WQA), we’re planning to do some research on basic consumer attitudes concerning how they now perceive their water, and whether their households are on well water or a municipal system. We want to understand the level of consumer sophistication concerning health contaminants, for instance, and their willingness to take on the job of treating their own water vs. buying bottled water or preferring tap water.
We think the consumer has learned a lot in the past 10 years or so. It used to be that if you sold your product using health contaminant removal claims, all you did was irritate the customer. They would then call their utility to complain that there was a health contaminant in their water. Of course, the utility would usually respond that it met all U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) standards and the water was perfectly safe. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t have a solid sale.
Your customer was now irate and ready to cancel their purchase. All your explanations served only to add to the confusion. Just try to explain, “Yes, the city water supply meets the federal maximum contaminant levels (MCL), but their water supply does not meet the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG)”—and that’s where your product comes to the rescue. Good luck with that message. You had just left the comfortable land of simplicity and entered the sales-killing field of complexity.
Some of us learned the best way to make a health claim was not to make one at all. We started using words from the food industry like “wholesomeness” or we talked about quality of life issues. Contaminants, health concerns, the difference between MCLs and MCLGs—this was the land of complexity, the bane of simplicity. Besides, the consumer knew what we meant. They didn’t want too much information because it scared them, but they also wanted to know we were helping them make a good choice for their families. The USEPA unwittingly added to this problem with its requirement that cities and public utilities put out “consumer confidence reports,” or annual water quality assessments. Yeah, right!
Every household now receives an unpronounceable list of contaminants that probably aren’t in their water along with scientific notations that this or that deadly toxin was tested for and found not to be in your water in the first place. I feel confident already.
In spite of all these confusing messages, we think the consumer is getting smarter. As a result, we also think the market will evolve in the next few years. Consumers are willing to take on more responsibility for their own well being. They know that water is a notoriously difficult thing to acquire, clean and distribute. We think they are ready to accept that responsibility without expecting the government to do everything for them. This means more sales and deeper penetration into urban markets.
At the same time, municipalities are beginning to think outside the box. Our products and technologies are beginning to look like solutions for some of their most difficult problems. This holds great potential for additional sales. Still, we have a long way to go before they’re convinced we represent a partnership rather than a threat. Consumer attitudes will have a lot to do with how fast this transition takes place.
Our technologies may lead the way, but consumer expectations remain the engine that will drive change. We’re convinced there’s a revolution taking place—one that will change the way we communicate with our customers. But facts are necessary for us to know what words to use and how to present our claims. That’s what our research will hopefully provide us.
The future will happen whether we try to understand it or not. Those who have the best data on consumer thinking will be better prepared to deal with that future.
About the author
Peter Censky has been executive director of the Water Quality Association since 1987. The WQA can be reached at (630) 505-0160, (630) 505-9637 (fax), email: [email protected] or website: www.wqa.org