Minneapolitans spend $180K to convince themselves—and their neighbors—to drink tap water


Residents of the City of Lakes have always enjoyed the swells, the shores, and the sights of the area’s liquid resources. But soon, they will become even more aware of the water at their disposal. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council contracted LaBreche Communications, a Minneapolis-based firm, to market the city’s overabundant supply of tap water in a $180,000 campaign that will last until the end of 2009.

LaBreche will focus on expanding the consumer base for Minneapolis water and encouraging residents and businesses to favor tap water over bottled water. Though the city already sells water to several suburbs, the deal marks the city’s first foray into actively marketing its plentiful water supply. The plan is taking shape against the backdrop of a progressive citywide campaign to cut down on waste.

Branding your faucet

also in the daily planet, susu jeffrey makes the case against bottled water.

Minneapolis tap water lacks the caché of Evian or Perrier, so a main focus of the marketing campaign will be to build “brand awareness” for tap water. Sara Cziok, LaBreche marketing communications manager and the tap water project lead, says the sheer volume of advertising by bottling companies, who assert that their products are superior to tap water, is a significant challenge to winning consumer support for a tap water “brand.”

The marketing campaign, which is still in development, will promote the first-rate quality of Minneapolis water, which Cziok said is some of the safest tap water in the nation. The water owes its high grade to the city’s state-of-the-art ultrafiltration plant in Columbia Heights, which can filter out particles as small as some viruses and is one of the only such facilities in the nation. Next door to the ultrafiltration plant, an older treatment plant, which employs traditional filtration methods, is still in use.

Jeremy Hanson, spokesperson for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the city rigorously tests its tap water, even beyond EPA requirements. About 500 tests are performed daily, according to the city’s Web site. The marketing team will take a tour of the ultrafiltration plant in the coming weeks in order to learn more about how it produces superior water.

Tap over bottled: The “green” choice

Environmental concerns will also figure in the molding of Minneapolis tap water’s new “identity.” LaBreche plans to market tap water as the eco-friendly choice—a less wasteful alternative to bottled water.

This appeal to the environmental conscience will reach beyond individual consumers to include businesses as well. Part of the campaign will focus on recruiting businesses to “sponsor” tap water, but LaBreche will also encourage companies to promote the tap over bottles by circulating materials promoting tap water among their employees, perhaps asking employees to pledge to drink tap water at work.

LaBreche will also reach out to Minneapolis restaurants and businesses that serve water. Last April, 14 Minneapolis restaurants signed a pledge to reduce bottled-water use in their establishments by serving tap water instead. The Birchwood Café was among the restaurants that took the pledge. General manager Elijah Goodwell said effects of the switch have been minimal so far. “We’ve had a few people ask for water to go,” he says “and we’ve given them a cup with a lid and a straw.”

The Birchwood also installed a water filtration system to ease the concerns of customers who may not trust tap water—but Goodwell says eliminating bottles was less an endorsement of Minneapolis tap water than a matter of decreasing waste. “We’re not saying we’re putting our blessing on city water. We’re not saying we trust tap water more than bottled water. It’s essentially the same water. We [just] don’t see bottled water as being a very worthy product, at least for our restaurant.”

More cash flow means cheaper water

Selling more tap water to suburbs could mean lots of new revenue flowing into the city, and that money could trickle down to residents. The more water the city sells, the less residents will have to pay per gallon, says City Council Member Sandy Colvin-Roy, who chairs the Public Works Committee.

All revenue from water sales flows back into a separate fund, known as the water enterprise fund. The $180,000 spent on the new water marketing campaign also came from this fund. As suburban customers pay in to the water fund, water rates for Minneapolis residents should go down.

Hanson says the idea of marketing and selling more tap water came about because the city has an ongoing surplus. “We have a great product and we have more than we need.” The city’s two filtration facilities in Columbia Heights are capable of processing 190 million gallons per day in the summer and 160 during the winter months—but the system usually operates at less than half that capacity, producing on average about 70 million gallons per day. The city draws all its water, about 25 billion gallons per year on average, from the Mississippi River.

Currently the cities of Golden Valley, Crystal, New Hope, Columbia Heights, Hilltop, parts of Bloomington and Edina, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport purchase Minneapolis water. In 2007, suburban and airport water sales drew in a total of $20 million. Customers within Minneapolis city limits paid a total of $42 million for water in 2007.

LaBreche will not market water directly to the suburbs; instead, the city has contracted another firm, Minneapolis-based Environmental Financial Group, Inc., to handle those sales. Still, Cziok said her marketing team will support sales to the suburbs by raising awareness about tap water quality across the metro area. “We’re already known as the Land of Lakes and known for all things water,” she says. “We’re charged with communicating to residents that they are fortunate to have this high-quality resource.”

Jamie Thomas (jethomas319@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist living in South Minneapolis.