BioCycle March/April 2015
When you go to the supermarket do you head for the store brand tissues or do you go for the Kleenex? With hay fever season (actually tree pollen season) about to start here in Seattle, I typically go for what comes in the biggest box at the lowest cost. But I am not the consumer that Kleenex counts on. In fact, the Kleenex brand has been so successful that likely at least half the time, people will ask you for a Kleenex rather than a tissue.
Companies spend fortunes on brand- ing and marketing so that their products will stand out. They do this so people will associate their particular brands with certain attributes — ideally all good things. Just like Kleenex. I have not been a big fan of this but am coming to think that branding has a critical role in the success of different compost and biosolids programs.
For compost and biosolids, we typically have standards that the industry has relied on to demonstrate the quality of their products. These standards are sometimes synonymous with the legal requirements that must be met in order for these products to be sold or distributed. Let’s start with compost. On a really broad level, we will use the Wikipedia definition: “Compost is organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer and soil amendment.” Depending on where and what you compost, that may or may not mean you had to meet time and temperature requirements. It may or may not mean your product has gone through an active phase and a curing phase. It says nothing about the fertilizer value of your material, potential for contaminants in the compost, potential for the product to stink and even whether the “compost” will help or hinder plants.
The industry — namely the US Composting Council — has taken steps to narrow the definition of the term. A set of testing parameters was developed and products meeting those parameters are allowed to brand themselves as being Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) approved. The STA testing program is a really good one and very important. But for me it is not far enough. It is the equivalent of separating tissues from paper towels, but nowhere close enough to differentiating a product to Kleenex levels of recognition.
For biosolids and biosolids-based products, the situation is even worse. Biosolids are typically branded by the regulatory designation that they fall under. All biosolids must meet Class A or B requirements in order to be land applied. For both A and B, that means the material has met limits on heavy metal concentrations. Class B has had most pathogens destroyed while Class A has had all pathogens destroyed. A Class A product can be a sweet smelling bagged material that you would have no issues about sticking your ungloved hand into and spreading on your strawberries. It can also stink and have a texture like crunchy peanut butter.
Class A and B are designations that mean plenty from a regulatory perspective and absolutely nothing to a potential consumer. This absence of brand recognition makes the potential customer and ratepayer very susceptible to misinformation on the hazards associated with biosolids. It also provides virtually no distinction between what a municipal facility proudly refers to as their Class A product and the more generic sewage sludge — a term more commonly associated with industrial waste than with a soil-saving valuable product.
Build Your Brand
This is where branding and marketing come in. I would argue that for both compost and biosolids, we do not have the level of product recognition by the general public that makes branding unnecessary. We are not at the point where we can all recognize that Milorganite is just one version of a Class A biosolids product. And neither is the industry. Ask for Milorganite as a generic term for Class A biosolids and you may very well get a handful of that smelly chunky peanut butter — clearly not an acceptable substitute. The situation for compost is a lot better, but still not great. STA-approved is starting to mean something to landscapers and wholesalers, but not yet much of anything to the general public.
This absence of branding and marketing has left both composters and biosolids purveyors highly susceptible to the bad players out there. The poorly run composting facility that makes an entire neighborhood stink will make that neighborhood suspicious of any type of compost. The bad biosolids program can do enough damage that all of the well-run programs end up playing catch up for years just trying not to lose ground. In this case, a rotten egg can spoil the whole barrel. Note here that rotten eggs often have a really bad sulfur odor. The same type of odor that often characterizes a bad composting facility or smelly biosolids.
If you have branded your product and have developed sufficient name recognition that your customers associate your product with certain reliable standards, there is a very high potential that even with rotten eggs all around you, you will still come out smelling sweet. Once again, I’ll cite the example of Tagro, the City of Tacoma, Washington’s biosolids. The product “has been making neighbors jealous since 1991.” The Tagro line of products is consistent in quality and performance to the point where the program is generally immune to anti biosolids sentiment. In the Puget Sound area, Tagro is well known and has a very loyal customer base that takes pride in product. These products are not so much biosolids as they are Tagro to their customers. They have achieved Kleenex standards.
I just read about another program that is attempting to do something similar. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania is asking its ratepayers to come up with a name for the city’s biosolids products. The winner of the contest gets bragging rites and a cubic yard of Class A biosolids compost delivered to their door by the mayor. The city has been producing a composted biosolids for years and has a loyal customer base. It is taking this next step of naming its compost product as a way to increase residents’ awareness of the wastewater process and the value of the compost. Hopefully this will bring them a catchy name and an expanded customer base.
Branding to me should reflect pride in product. It is a tool to increase awareness, acceptance and sales. It is a way to differentiate your material from lower quality materials, to shield your product from those rotten eggs that unfortunately are still out there. Beware that this can go both ways. If you are thinking of branding, consider that to be successful, you have to live and breathe your brand. That means maintaining high quality in your facility for your neighbors and in your product for your customers. If you don’t maintain this quality, your brand can be associated with poor quality rather than good. You don’t want to be the Ford Pinto or Chevy Vega of composts. Strive for Kleenex and don’t let yourself settle for sandpaper. People who have mistakenly blown their nose with sandpaper will remember that for a very long time.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.