The struggle for identity in a catch-phrase world



   One of the slipperiest problems I have had to solve with Blue Future Filters has been creating an identity both for the company and its products.
   In essence, what we make are just combinations of pipe, valves, fittings, and big polyethylene tanks.    The value, of course, is in the exact combination, placement, and function of these individual items. But even then, the result is a combination of materials that could be simply described as “a filter.”
   The same is true with the name of the company. It could for all intents and purposes be “Blackburn Filters.”
   Traditionally, slow sand filters have been great enormous structures made of concrete or dug into the ground like reservoirs.
   Slow sand filters use naturally occurring bacteria and other organisms to essentially eat disease causing organisms as those organisms pass through the filter.
   With reliable materials such as polyethylene tanks being developed in the last 50 years, it is possible to take a ponderous, sedentary technology and make it mass producible, very uniform, and portable.
   So now we have this portable bacteria-eating machine, that uses a time-proven and approved technology. Now what?
   I perceived two markets for our filters in the United States: residential and small community water systems. I faced two initial challenges here; the first was how to work with the average consumer interested in clean drinking water, and the second was how to work with the regulatory officials used to the old concrete jobs.
   Residential consumers were interested in the technology, but not all the details. It became clear to me that after I explained how the filters worked, all people really wanted to know was the price, dimensions, how long it would take to get a system, and if they could install it and take care of it themselves.
   I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that I could either build these things custom like the old concrete systems, or I could offer a few models covering all the water quantity requirements envisioned. I chose the latter solution.
   It saved time and it allowed me to work on just a few designs instead of every one being unique. By offering just a few models I could also give quick quotes, have standard descriptive materials and be able to supply the filters quickly.
This also worked with the regulators and engineers. Some of the first projects I proposed were too custom. Regulators were used to lots of engineering drawings and proposals, specifications, endless back and forth.
   Establishing a few discreet models ended all that. I could just propose a certain size or range of models, supply support documents, and let them choose.
This whole process occurred over two or three years. The result was a discreet line of products with discreet and identifiable features and appearance.
So what did I call them?
   The fist one I just called the SSF-1. The SSF stood for “slow sand filter” and the “1” stood for one gallon per minute, as well as signified the first unit. The other models followed suit and just had different numbers denoting how many gallons per minute they could produce.
   Even after working on it for the past few years, however, we are still struggling with issues of identity of the products.
   Most people associate “filter” with cartridges, or reverse osmosis. We are nothing like those systems, in appearance or function. So far we have not found a quick two-word solution to this identity issue, and we have relied on lots of explanation, good scientific data, and the blessing of regulators to point out our differences from other systems.
   Naming the filters turned out to be relatively straightforward, but after developing the systems and the products, naming the company to match what we did was by far the most difficult part of the whole identity issue. I went through hundreds of name options and combinations involving “bio,” “hydro,” “aqua,” “crystal clear,” etc., ad nauseum. Nothing rang true. Nothing described what we were trying to do without sounding like what everyone else was trying to do.
   Then three years ago, I gave up on that approach and sat down to look at what we were really trying to convey with our products and company.
   Idealistic and grandiose as it may sound, I really wanted people to change how they viewed water treatment on a global level. Instead of using disposable materials and lots of electricity and chemicals to treat water, I wanted people to start thinking of using proven natural, affordable principles as a long-term, sustainable way to provide safe drinking water.
   I wanted to present our company as one that sees a positive future for clean drinking water in every part of the world for poor people and those of us fortunate to live in developed countries.
   A blue future, if you will.
   Hmmmm… I like the sound of that….

Humphrey Blackburn is the President and CEO of Blue Future Filters, which recently moved to Custer from Sanata Rosa, CA.

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