Unclogging the cycle Article icon


Sometimes all a company needs is a catchy rhyme, a television advert and the discovery of a rather large Pooh to create a campaign that resonates with its audience.

When Scottish Water realised that the bill to unblock more than 45,000 drains and sewers every year was reaching £7 million, the utility company knew it was time to embark on its biggest customer campaign yet.

Around 80 per cent of blockages comprise household and bathroom waste that should not find its way down a sink plughole or a toilet pipe. And so the Scottish Water Cycle campaign was launched to educate householders on what should and shouldn’t be let loose into the sewer networks.

The campaign was split into two series. Phase one ran for eight weeks starting in October when Scottish Water launched its first ever television adverts, which were broadcast on STV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, while the soundtrack aired on 14 radio stations across Scotland.

The first advert focused on how flushing wipes down the toilet is neither good for the homeowner, their neighbours or the environment as it costs time and money when they block pipes. The short cartoon shows a mother discarding a baby wipe down the toilet, revealing how this seemingly innocuous item can clog up the cycle. Bin it, don’t flush it is the message.

The second advert features a man pouring cooking fat down the sink, again stopping the cycle running smoothly. Dispose of cooled fats in a sealable container is the message.

Nicola McDonagh, web manager at Scottish Water, says: ‘We did a lot of research with customers and found that they would be really receptive to adverts shown on television. We decided to use video as it grabs people’s attention. We used a cartoon style with bright colours and made them only 40 seconds long.’

Each video uses visual cycle graphics, showing Scotland on a mechanical loop that struggles to move when unnecessary household waste appears in the system. Always working so the cycle never stops is the tagline.

‘We first aired these videos in October and November; the adverts brightened up viewers’ dark, autumn nights,’ admits McDonagh. ‘We received very good feedback from them.’

Scottish Water monitored the TV adverts to see how many people watched them and to assess the reach achieved by each airing. Its communications team also checked social media for related comments or posts.

McDonagh explains: ‘We did a weekly review of the effectiveness of the two adverts, which we also uploaded onto our YouTube account, and the social media advertising we had posted. It was all really successful. The adverts outperformed our expectations on both television and YouTube.’

Just over two months later, Scottish Water launched the second phase which focused on water efficiency. The communications team kicked off the campaign with a press release declaring that it had found a large Pooh in the East Kilbride sewer; the Pooh in question was yellow and wore a red tee-shirt.

‘We wanted to discourage people from throwing household waste down the sink or into the sewers,’ explains McDonagh. ‘We found bikes, fax machines and even a large stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh cuddly toy bear near Glasgow. We knew we had to do something.’

The story was picked up by news organisations across the UK, and even reached international broadcasters, such as NBC News and India Today. ‘We used this discovery on the first day of the campaign. It really helped us and we are glad that we used it and we did find that interest in the campaign was maintained throughout February and March because of the messages we continued to post,’ says McDonagh.

Scottish Water used its presence on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to promote the campaign further and direct people to the adverts embedded on its website.

Images, simple tips, checklists and short rhymes were used on the three social media platforms to remind followers of the steps they could take to ensure the cycle runs smoothly.

Posts such as A dripping tap uses at least 5,500 litres a year, enough to fill a paddling pool every week for the summer and Cooking Sunday lunch? Put fats, oils and grease in the bin not down the sink were shared, retweeted and commented on, with one lady exclaiming: Oops, I always pour it down the sink?!.

‘We were really happy with how people responded on both Facebook and Twitter. We gained an excellent engagement score of 26 per cent, which is really great as sometimes just one per cent can be good for us,’ admits McDonagh. ‘We ran a review of what did and didn’t work and found that the little rhymes were really good, such as Flushable wipes can still block pipes and Pee, toilet paper, poo, the only things to flush down the loo. These really appeal to the eight year old in all of us.

‘Links to the videos which said As seen on TV produced really high engagement levels too. The lower engagement levels came from posts which specifically targeted groups, such as teenagers.’

While the main target audience was homeowners aged between 18 and 55 years old, Scottish Water also embarked on an educational programme for school children. ‘We want to train them early so when they become homeowners in the future they know what can and cannot be put down the toilet,’ explains McDonagh.

Scottish Water staff visited several schools and some schoolchildren designed posters that highlighted the correct ways of disposing of items such as nappies and cooking oils.

The team also visited supermarkets, such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and specific hot spots which were causing problems, to promote the campaign.

McDonagh says: ‘The television adverts, the social media campaigns, the visits – everything we did really came together.’

Scottish Water also launched five new community-focused Twitter accounts, run by regional managers, to keep customers informed about improvements to services in their area. ‘The five managers are valued and trusted in their communities. We are working with them to extend their influence online so we explained what we wanted them to do, gave them training and support and let them tweet. The tone and the content of their digital profiles reflect who they are: approachable people who can be trusted,’ explains McDonagh. ‘They are not there to chase popularity but to extend their influence online. They are working closely with influencers like bloggers and are building up a good relationship with the press.

‘They are all making good progress. Bill Elliot [whose region includes Edinburgh and North Lanarkshire] is especially social and his personality is reflected through his posts on Twitter.’

Elliot, @SW_BillElliot, who has more than 600 followers, often posts informative tweets such as Around 2.2 km of pipes in Hamilton to be improved in bid to further enhance drinking water quality. But he will also post comments such as it’s FRIDAY! and Happy Easter! Let’s hope the sun shines over the holidays!

McDonagh adds: ‘These accounts are a work in progress. We frequently catch up with the managers to see how they are getting along and see if they have any issues that they may need help with.’

On a daily basis, Scottish Water uses Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to engage with customers and followers.

Its main Twitter account, @scottish_water, with more than 8,500 followers, and the recently launched @ScotWaterNews, which has more than 300 followers, are used to keep customers and stakeholders up-to-date with breaking news, media campaigns and infrastructure and refurbishment plans.

‘There is a mix of people who follow us on Twitter, such as the media, customers, government organisations and councillors,’ explains McDonagh. ‘We are very friendly and open on here as customers will ask a lot more questions through this platform. It is definitely the platform that we update most frequently.’

Its Facebook account, which has just over 2,000 ‘likes’, is followed by Scottish Water employees as well as customers. ‘We discuss our volunteering programme on here, so we have a mixture of employee support and other customers. We get a very good response from them,’ says McDonagh.

Its LinkedIn company page is also used to discuss campaigns and volunteering initiatives, but Scottish Water is also helping senior employees build their own LinkedIn profiles.

‘We put on workshops for people who don’t have LinkedIn profiles to help them make one and we also help those who do to get the most out of their account,’ says McDonagh. ‘The approach is well received. We uploaded the information from the workshops to our Intranet for our employees to use.’

Scottish Water has social media guidelines for employees to follow as sometimes the line can blur between personal and employee accounts. However, McDonagh notes that this isn’t a worry for them.

By including social media and digital in Scottish Water’s most recent campaign, McDonagh concludes: ‘We could see a difference as soon as we started the campaign. We are still reaching our established audience but now we are reaching new audiences as well.

‘We will use a similar approach to other campaigns in the future but we can also learn from this one, evolve and move forward.’