Image Transformation: A Lesson From the Auto Industry

Image Transformation: A Lesson From the Auto Industry
Karleen Kos is executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International. She may be reached at or 952/854-8300.

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I bought my first-ever new car in 1987. It was low-end and nothing special to anyone but me — except for its one unique feature: cup holders.

Believe it or not, there was a time when cup holders were not a thing. As late as 1989, US News and World Report was calling “crannies for drinking cups” an unnecessary “future frill,” though they caught on fast with the car-buying public. People demanded cup holders, and more new autos had them. Then in 1994 a woman in a car was severely burned by too-hot coffee from McDonald’s, and the accident proved to be the tipping point, no pun intended. After that, cup holders became ubiquitous in American autos.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with portable sanitation.

As PSAI executive director, I have been party to many discussions about the difficulty of persuading customers to rent enough units or service to ensure a positive experience. Sometimes it can seem like an unsolvable problem — mainly because the people who pay the bill lack sufficient motivation to make better rental decisions. Most of them never actually use the units themselves. The people who do use the units — the end users — don’t often understand how the rental process works. So they blame the portable sanitation company for their suboptimal experience, walking away with a bad feeling about the entire industry.

And round it goes — unless portable restrooms can become the new cup holders.

When consumers began demanding cup holders, auto companies — after 70 years of making cars without them — finally became motivated to provide “crannies for drinking cups.” At first they cost extra, and end users willingly paid extra. Today, people simply expect cup holders and won’t consider vehicles without them. Put simply, consumer demand and willingness to pay for what they knew was possible forced changes from auto manufacturers that might not have happened otherwise. This worked out pretty well for everyone involved with providing the cup holders, too.

Recently, PSAI committed to a long-range strategy for transforming the image of the portable sanitation industry. Our plan will require many years of time, talent and financial commitment. We aim for a day when end users expect, and indeed get, a portable restroom experience that is memorable because it isn’t memorable — with economics that work for all the parties involved.

This will happen when the public understands that portable restrooms do not have to be unpleasant, and they start demanding better options from our decision-making customers. When end users learn about the diverse equipment and services our industry can provide, and when they know where the decisions are made, things will start to change. Take PSAI’s mail carrier. She discovered luxury restroom trailers at a family wedding last summer and can’t stop gushing about her experience.  

PSAI’s long-range strategy is aimed at harnessing the enthusiasm of satisfied users like our mail carrier to create market demand for better, cleaner, more pleasant portable restroom options. We know it will take time and money to really move the needle. Perhaps some unknowable event will help create a tipping point sooner. Whenever and however the change comes, everyone will win.

Maybe we should consider adding cup holders.


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