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Denver Water Provides Social Marketing with a Splash of Fun

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Ian Bevan

Local government rarely gets the chance to run social marketing campaigns which employ tongue and cheek humor, edgy imagery, and guerilla marketing tactics to change unsustainable behavior.  For the last six years, Denver Water, Colorado’s oldest water utility along with social marketing firm, Sukle, have done just that and with impressive results. The campaign in concert with incentive based enforcement strategies have led to a 19% reduction in water usage in the Denver area over the last three years.

The campaign is called “Use Only What You Need” and is hard to miss around Denver as each component is designed to first shock and then make you think.  Both common and uncommon modes of advertisement were used in the campaign, such as viral videos, bus ads, printed ads, promotional give aways, an interactive website, bill boards, an online game called Wack-A-Sprinkler, conveyer belt ads, bench ads, elevators, funny lawn signs, shocking displays, and even seemingly naked men who mingle at events wearing a bright orange sign stating “Use Only What You Need.”   For more examples visit www.sukle.com.
In addition to Sukle’s bold and imaginative social marketing strategies, they also use community based marketing strategies to increase the Denver community’s exposure to the campaign’s message.  Teri Chavez, marketing and communications director for Denver Water described the community based marketing tactics of Sukle stating, “It's really more than just the campaign and this is what Sukle does well.  It’s all their guerilla tactics.  Take the sandwich boards or the running toilet.  They’re getting into the community at these large events.  They’re interacting with customers.”

Chavez went on to describe Denver Water’s mascot called the running toilet, which runs through Broncos stadium only to get tackled for wasting water.  “You can hear parents say ‘look at that running toilet’ and you hear the little conversation they have with their family.  The kids say ‘that means we aren’t supposed to let our toilets run at home.’  It’s way more effective than a print ad in a magazine,” Chavez noted.

It is also important to note that the campaign began in 2006, after a major drought.  Denver Water’s board of directors took a progressive stance and decided that rather than yelling all clear, they would instead continue to promote increased water savings to their customers.  They set the ambitious goal of reducing water usage by 22% of pre-drought levels by 2015.   The lighthearted Use Only What You Need campaign would be instrumental in reaching this new goal and thus the campaign’s budget for the first year was one million dollars.  However, after establishing their campaign’s presence in Denver, it was possible to scale back the annual budget to $650,000 for 2011.  Considering that Denver is much better prepared for an emergency situation, such as an extreme drought, the cost of maintaining water saving behavior is likely well worth the price and the fun.

About the Author:

Ian Bevan is Founder and Director of

Green Tower Sustainability

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