Good Water, Good Science, Good PR

By Mark Green

A customer fills a reusable bottle with Louisville pure tap® at a Waterfront Park fill station, units set up for special events and provides an ongoing supply of chilled water.

Louisville pure tap® began simply enough as a marketing device by Louisville Water Co. in 1996 to counteract and get some publicity mileage out of the then-growing bottled water trend. At schools and community events, Louisville residents were handed empty 16-ounce bottles with a smile and the advice: “If you want great tasting bottled water, go home and fill it up for free.”

They did and they liked it. And the smart-alecky stunt has become a full-fledge program the water company’s constituents continue to embrace.

“Bottled water was just becoming hip,” said Kelley Dearing, manager of strategic communications for Louisville Water Co. Perhaps not coincidentally, there also were national news stories at the time questioning the safety of tap water.

Officials in Louisville, however, knew their tap product met all the highest standards, plus it had been singled out by People magazine in the 1980s along with Seattle for having good taste.

“Louisville Water Co. thought, ‘We’ve got great tasting water. We’ve got great science. We’ve got to take advantage of this bad publicity,” Dearing said.

It grew into a very successful branding exercise.

Multiple feel-good synergies emerged, and pure tap became a platform to launch several public relations initiatives. It is a signature program today that creates thousands of positive interactions with individuals, customers, organizations and the community at large.

Louisville Water Co. is 151  years old and last year was honored with the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2011 “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award” for the company’s Riverbank Filtration Project, which collects groundwater from beneath bedrock paralleling the Ohio River some 150 feet below the surface.

“There is nothing more tested than what comes out of your tap. We do 200 tests before it goes out,” Dearing-Smith said. “The EPA is always upgrading standards and items to test for.”

According to Louisville Water Co. research, more than 70 percent of bottled water that is sold essentially comes from the tap somewhere. “It is bottled for convenience,” Dearing-Smith said.

And for profit.

Drinking the recommended eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day costs 50 cents a year from the tap in Louisville versus $1,500 for bottled water bought from the store.

Louisville Water Co. estimates it invested more than $1.5 million over the first 15 years of the program and  believes that it was money well spent, Dearing said.

“We survey customers monthly for our Customer Satisfaction Index. Several questions directly relate to pure tap,” she said. “When customers say they’ve been exposed to the pure tap program, they have a much more favorable view of the water company. We see a direct correlation.”

Keep pouring it on

Last August, on the 15th anniversary of Louisville pure tap®, the water utility launched a re-branded effort to promote the quality and value of its drinking water – with a focus on the tap. The Louisville pure tap® program includes a BPA-free 20-ounce bottle, coolers, compostable cups and water pitchers.

The program also now includes a popular new device, “Louisville pure tap® TO GO,” which the utility’s engineers developed to pull water straight from a distribution main. That water passes through a chilling device with a tap allowing the hot and thirsty to serve themselves, Dearing said.

“We have used our pure tap budget as our community outreach,” she said. “The water company is very cautious about how it spends money. pure tap is our way to give back. We can’t donate $1,000 to events, but we can provide water.”

For example, during the Derby Festival mini marathon and full marathon runs early this month, participants were given more than 100,000 gallons of water. Some 245,000 compostable cups were distributed and used at multiple stops along the route of the  13- and 26-mile runs. It was the first year bottles were eliminated for what is always pure tap’s single biggest undertaking.

In 2012, Louisville Water Co. expects to fill requests from 1,000 organizations to provide water for schools, churches, sporting events, community events and individual requests. The program will provide 20,000 BPA-free bottles, 300 water pitchers, 200 loan-out coolers and 500,000 compostable cups.

The program renewed last August includes launching an effort to brand water fountains around the city, including at the Louisville Zoo, UofL campus, the KFC Yum! Center and 150 Jefferson County Public Schools, where a new federal law requires schools that receiving National School Lunch program money must provide “tap water” for free during lunch – and educate children on the health benefits of water.

“This effort is really growing. We’re talking right now with several local businesses about expanding our water fountain initiative.” n

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]

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