Most of us know getting people to call 811 in the U.S. or Click Before You Dig in Canada
is critical to both public safety and the protection of the vital buried infrastructure in North America. Surprisingly though, studies have shown at least 70% of people who live near a pipeline know the pipeline is present because of the pipeline markers. This statistic doesn’t support the idea that we should stop using media outlets to encourage people
to request a locate before they dig, but it does tell us that those permanent markers serve an important role.
Knowing people see these markers and read them, it becomes imperative that they fulfill the needs they were created for in the first place. A poorly maintained marker might cause people to assume the cable system or pipeline it is marking is poorly maintained as well. Whether a communications company, pipeline operator, electric utility, or a water system, that is not the message you want to send to your community or potential customers.
Every permanent marker installed on a buried facility serves as a small billboard for
that facility owner. Who within your company is responsible for creating the specifications
for your permanent marking system? Who is responsible for maintenance of these markers? Does your corporate communications or marketing department have any input? To understand the scope of this branding tool, assume 10,000 marker posts for every 1,000 miles of pipeline or buried cable. With three decals/warning messages per marker, this translates to 30,000 branding messages per 1,000 miles – and that’s only the marker posts, not decals on closures and surface markers.
Good marking products will last a minimum of 10 years. What would it cost to buy 30,000 billboards for 10 years? Yes, these are small billboards, but size is offset by location. Media impressions are most valuable when they reach your most likely customers and markers near your buried assets could not be more targeted.
It is unlikely a facility owner would let a billboard like the one in Figure 1 remain in place. Sadly though, thousands of permanent markers near active facilities are in place that are similar to Figures 2-4. Not only do these posts not serve their purpose of providing important public safety messaging, they are sending the wrong branding message for the facility owner.
Changing the Company Name
A regulated pipeline is required to update all permanent markers with the new name and emergency response phone number. But is updating markers with current information and logos any less important for a communications company than is rebranding? During a name change, most companies have a significant advertising budget designed to reach new customers and build their brand. Don’t let these small billboards undermine the big dollar ads.
Here is one case study of a company that chose to merge its desire for an effective permanent marking system with its corporate communications goal to build a strong brand.
Black Hills Energy (BHE) traces its roots to the tiny South Dakota town of Deadwood,
where it originally operated as the local electric utility. Over the years they expanded into
Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. In July 2015, BHE announced it was purchasing
SourceGas which added approximately 425,000 customers in Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, and a 512-mile regulated intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline.
BHE had to decide between buying thousands of inexpensive decals to stick over its current markers to meet regulations or taking advantage of a golden opportunity to proactively improve its marking system and build its brand.
BHE viewed it as an opportunity to update standards to include new products that would not only outlast patch stickers but would, more importantly, reduce the risk of third-party damages. The added bonus of building its brand was especially important in areas where
the Black Hills Energy name was new to customers.
The BHE Corporate Communications group realized the remarking project had major branding implications. The acquisition was going to cost more than a billion dollars and the single most visible impression of BHE would be their tens of thousands of pipeline markers. For many new customers, the first impression of BHE would be the pipeline marker near their home or workplace. This was an opportunity to have a new, consistent message and marking system across all BHE territories.
This was also the perfect opportunity to revamp company standards and O&M pertaining to pipeline markers and signs. The new updated standards contain solutions for all its marking applications – no easy task as it had inherited all types and kinds of markers via acquisitions. Add to that the vastly different terrains and urban settings within a system that reaches from Arkansas to Wyoming. The new O&M manual contains a “Product Listing” for all newly approved materials, including images to create consistency and reduce confusion, and a “Retrofit and Installation Field Guide” with installation instructions to be used by contractors and field techs during implementation.
What BHE did is a great example of how to support a brand in a very efficient and cost effective way through Growth Hacking. Growth Hacking is a marketing approach used by many startup companies that have limited marketing funds and are forced to think outside the box to get their message out. It involves leveraging both conventional and unconventional marketing methods to promote their brand and advance company growth. Needless to say, any organization can use this approach if they are open to new ways of thinking and a little experimentation.” – Jim MacLachlan President, Tartan Marketing
According to Bill Stephens, Manager – Codes & Standards with BHE, several key factors
were considered during this process:
- Choose the correct marker for the right job (a metal marker may be appropriate in a field where a farmer does weed burns, but may not be right near a tree stand with hunters sighting their gun scopes). Install tall markers with reflector tops that can be seen day and night when farm equipment is in use.
- Durable for site conditions and longevity.
- Ease of site recognition (creating differentiation from other operators using unique color markings by each operator). Also, use unique colors for CP and other operational needs.
- Enhance markers for damage prevention (include 811 decals, emergency response verbiage, company QR code, etc.).
- Review OQ Abnormal Operating Conditions (AOC’s) procedures with contractors/company personnel prior to doing the work. Consider combining other company needs when doing the marker installation like performing centerline improvement accuracy, close interval survey (CIS) or code compliance surveys/ROW vegetation.
- Consider a legal warning to prevent tampering. Insert a statement like: It is a federal crime to willfully deface, damage, remove, or destroy any pipeline marker.
- For various Operational and Integrity needs, consider adding the GPS coordinates of marker installations in your company GIS system to ensure you know where they are located. This helps establish a baseline of marker installations which can be helpful in areas of heavy excavation or when an operator wants to increase marker installations to help with damage prevention or Integrity programs. This also can be used to ensure markers are installed at all crossings and will help in PHMSA or state audits when markers have been removed, to prove they had been installed.
- There will most likely still be a need for stickers for miscellaneous needs such as barricades, fences, doors, etc. Ensure a good procedure is in place or consult a
vendor to properly clean and prep the surface.
In the end, BHE designed and implemented a system-wide remarking program that created an extremely effective damage prevention system, along with tens of thousands of small billboards which help build the BHE brand 24/7, 365 days a year.