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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007I want readers to think about marketing for a minute. I spent 23 years working in SDG&E’s marketing department, so I know a little bit about this subject. Think about marketing slogans and buzzwords. These are typically short, catchy and easy for customers to remember. They can also be completely inaccurate and misleading, but they work.

A marketing slogan currently used by SDG&E, “serving you today, planning for tomorrow” was originally coined as we recovered from California’s energy crisis. During that crisis the California Public Utilities Commission took resource planning away from the utilities. Since the CPUC put the utilities back in charge of resource planning in 2003, SDG&E wanted to reestablish its role as the region’s primary energy resource planning entity in its customers’ minds.

The California Highway Patrol has come up with a good one: “click it or ticket” — short sweet, says it all.

Sometimes marketing terms are used to convince customers to not do something, and some don’t even need to use words to do that. When you see a little sign on SDG&E transformers and utility poles showing a character touching them and getting electrocuted, you know it’s a bad idea to touch or climb on them.

When San Diego began considering repurifying and reusing its water for potable purposes, a new marketing slogan came into common usage down here. Simple, catchy and easy to remember. Only three words: “Toilet to Tap.”

I wondered where this very effective marketing slogan was originally coined, and have conducted some research into this matter. I asked myself: “who would benefit by introducing this buzzword into our local water debate?” I followed the money.

No single entity has benefited from this slogan more than the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) up in Los Angeles. One thing a good marketing slogan does is help a company avoid a loss of revenues. MWD is the monopoly supplier of imported water to San Diego County. CWA traditionally buys 25 percent of the water that MWD imports from the Colorado River and the Delta area, meaning that San Diego County finances 25 percent of MWD’s budget. Since the city first began considering potable water reuse back around 1992, the San Diego County Water Authority has sent hundreds of millions of dollars, collected from San Diego water customers, north to MWD in Los Angeles.

Any steps that San Diego takes to increase its reuse of potable water it has already purchased from MWD represents a potentially significant reduction in MWD revenues, since that reuse would create a new locally owned and locally controlled source of “new” water.

Not only would the region be able to make better use of water it already owns, it would become that much less dependent on MWD for its water supplies. While the city of San Diego could save hundreds of millions of dollars in water purchases over time, MWD would see a greater and greater portion of its income from San Diego going away.

Another element of a good marketing slogan is that, once you put it into the mind of your customers, they take the ball and run with it, without any more action on your part. A big part of this city’s history deals with the gullible rubes down in San Diego being suckered by the slick marketing folks from Los Angeles. All they’d need to do is come down and whisper a few words into the ears of headline happy local politicians and gullible local media outlets, and let them carry the ball for them.

Each month when CWA sends multimillion dollar checks to MWD, it must wonder how us gullible hicks down in San Diego have tied ourselves up in analysis paralysis and political inaction for more than a decade and a half, all because of three little words. The huge amounts of money we have sent MWD over that period would easily have financed the potable water reuse system proposed by the city’s water department several times over.

Every time we drink tap water, we’re voting with our mouths. Every time we drink local tap water, we’re demonstrating our faith that our water agencies know what they’re doing, and that they are capable of providing us with safe water to drink. Every time we drink bottled water, which typically is just municipal tap water that has been filtered a couple more times; we trust our water agency staff to ensure that the water we drink is safe. This trust has been rewarded, since there has never been any significant instance of people getting sick from drinking water from our water agencies.

So when these same professionals, who include some of the finest water scientists and engineers in the nation, come to us and tell us they can repurify wastewater and make it purer than bottled water we pay a lot of money for, then mix it into the San Vicente Reservoir with the recycled water we buy from MWD, therefore improving the quality of the water currently in the reservoir, why do we suddenly distrust them?

That’s easy. Just three little words. A slick marketing slogan. The next time you hear someone use that slogan, please, think about where it came from.

Don Wood is a local planning activist. voiceofsandiego.org considers all op-eds concerning local issues for publication. If you’d like to submit one, send it to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or send a letter.

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