Officials Throw Cold Water on Agency’s Rebranding

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission -- and its logo -- will soon be a thing of the past.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the water utility in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, plans to spend nearly $900,000 changing its name and logo.

The move isn’t sitting well with local leaders in the two counties.

Starting this fall, WSSC will become WSSC Water. The current logo, a blue water drop with the words “Where Water Matters,” will give way to a contemporary blue and green ‘W’ partially formed by rows of water droplets, with the slogan “Delivering the Essential.”

The utility — which raised rates on most of its 1.8 million customers on July 1 — will spend the next three years putting the new logo on its trucks, worker uniforms and buildings, at an estimated cost of $491,000.  

Last year the utility paid two Washington, D.C., marketing and communications firms $360,000 to help develop the new branding and image.

“We’re a water company and we don’t have water in our name,” said Chuck Brown, the utility’s director of Communications & Community Relations. “It just makes sense.”

But the move doesn’t make sense to local officials contacted by Maryland Matters, several of whom did not know about the changes or their price tag until informed by a reporter.

“I don’t think most people care what the name of the company is,” said Prince George’s County Councilmember Jolene Ivey (D). “They just want to pay less.”

“I don’t have any problem with their product, but I do have a problem with paying more,” Ivey added. “…People just can’t afford it.”

When the WSSC briefed the Montgomery County Council on its proposed 5 percent rate increase in the spring, officials pledged to spend nearly 80 percent of the resulting revenue on infrastructure, Councilmember Evan Glass (D) said. 

“We have pipes that are bursting and new technology that can detect problems before they happen,” Glass said. “That investment is really important. But I’m not sure the rebranding effort is the best use of taxpayer funds.” 

The utility is governed by a six-person commission, divided evenly between the two counties. 

To mark WSSC’s 100th year of operations, the utility hired firms that specialize in branding and marketing, which then conducted a review of WSSC’s image with its customers and employees.

According to an analysis they produced:

— The use of the word “sanitary” harkens back to WSSC’s founding in 1918, when sewage in drinking water was a major health concern;

— “WSSC is viewed negatively and not customer-centric”;

— “WSSC’s negative image impacts customers’ trust in the utility”;

— Most utilities have added the word “Water” to their name. (The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority became DC Water in 2010, according to spokesman John Lisle. Agency officials spent approximately $160,000 on the change, he claims, in part because they had a contest in which the public designed the utility’s new logo.)

Brown, the WSSC spokesman, stressed that the cost of changing worker uniforms and signs will be spread out over a three-year period. Uniforms will not be replaced until they are worn out, he said, though ID badges will be replaced up front because many of the agency’s employees interact with the public. 

“We’re very mindful of the public’s money,” he said. “We do everything in our power to save money.”

He said the utility has saved “tens of millions of dollars” over the years by driving down contract costs and monitoring overtime expenses.

WSSC has a capital budget of $1.5 billion.

In the early 1990s the agency caught flak for building a high-rise glass and steel office tower along Interstate 95, a structure critics dubbed the Taj Mahal. In response to the uproar, WSSC officials decided not to place their logo on the south side of the building. The blank space remains to this day.

Citing money concerns, Brown said the empty spot on the top floor is not likely to get the new logo. 

While WSSC may benefit from an image makeover, officials said, they were unwilling to defend the utility’s decision to spend nearly $1 million on branding, especially since it operates a monopoly.

Prince George’s County Councilmember Jolene Ivey (D)

“I have knocked on so many old peoples’ doors who are on a very fixed income and they have brought out bills to me and shown me each little fee and everything that’s gone up,” Ivey said. 

“Things that to you or me might not be a big deal, like a dollar here or there, actually impacts their quality of life.”

The board’s vote on the rebranding was 4-0. Two of Prince George’s County’s three seats are vacant; new County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) has nominated Sandra Thompson to serve as a WSSC commissioner, and the Council will act on her nomination in September. The administration will send a second nominee after Labor Day. 

A WSSC staff memo to the board hinted at the sensitive timing of their decision.

“We would like to move forward with the new name/logo to launch externally after the implementation of the new rate structure,” the document said. 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. The problem is not WSSC, every company wants to expand, get new digs, and rebrand to a more contemporary look. The problem is the lack of oversight. These expenditures on the study and design should have been made only after county elected officials had examined the proposal to re-brand. As it is, the county officials will probably decide that money has already been spent on the project, so it might as well go ahead, just as the WSSC probably expected.

  2. If WSSC can rebrand without raising rates 4-9% every single year, as they have for each of the past 15 years (except for the two years that they raised fees), then more power to them. But that’s just not the case. They’re starting to do some belt tightening, but they need to do more, or rates which have doubled in the past 12 years will double again soon:
    8% rate increase each year: rates double in 9 years.
    6% increase: rates double in 13 years.
    4% increase: rates double in 18 years.
    Personally, I plan to still be in my house in 13 years, and I don’t know if I can afford to have my rates double again. WSSC seems to think that a 6% or so rate increase each year is no big deal, but they’re wrong.

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