In most industries, it’s easy to differentiate through quality.
In food, it’s the ingredients; in fashion, it’s the materials; and in hospitality, it’s the customer service. Yet in the bottled water industry, it’s hard to tell the difference between high and low-quality water. In fact, to most people, water is just tasteless.
In developed countries like the U.S. where tap water is generally safe to drink, it’s puzzling to understand why bottled water has become an indispensable part of American culture.
According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), since 2017, bottled water is America’s favorite packaged drink. It’s ahead of popular beverage categories such as soft drinks, teas, and juices. Not bad for plain old water.
For some reason, consumers are willing to pay a premium for certain water brands. And for the most part, that’s because of marketing.
In the U.S., it all began with French bottled water brand Perrier back in 1976.
At the time, the bottled water industry was trivial. It was mainly multi-gallon bottles used as water fountains in offices, cafeterias, or homes.
To Perrier’s credit, they realized that by making smaller glass bottles, they could pitch Perrier as an individual beverage instead of a multi-gallon bottle.
And that’s when things got interesting.
All other beverage offerings at restaurants, hotels, and bars were soft drinks, beers, and juices, so Perrier seemed like a no-brainer as the healthier alternative.
Perrier’s initial success caught the eye of fellow compatriots Evian, who swiftly introduced plastic bottled water in the 1980s — largely the product we’re all familiar with today.
As the bottled water industry grew in the coming years, soft drink giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola joined the party by purchasing Aquafina and Dasani, respectively. To date, they’re the two biggest players, with over 10% of the market each.
If bottled water tastes virtually the same as tap water across the U.S., what exactly are we buying?
That’s where the ingenuity of the marketers comes into place. We’re buying the beautiful story the water brands love to pitch about the location, purity, and history of each brand.
Two clear examples of water brands positioning themselves in the high-end of the pricing spectrum — charging up to three times the average price — through great marketing are Fiji Water and Evian.
1. Fiji Water
Fiji Water came to life in 1996 when founder David Gilmour closed a deal with the Fijian authorities to exploit their natural resources.
Ever since, the brand has leveraged the exotic location of the Fiji Islands to create a compelling narrative. Among the phrases they emphasize are:
“High above Fiji over 1,600 miles from the nearest continent.”
“Bottled at the source, untouched by man, until you unscrew the cap.”
“Slowly filtered by volcanic rock, it gathers minerals & electrolytes that create Fiji water’s soft, smooth taste.”
Though I’ve never heard of non-soft water, many Americans seem to be seduced by the idea of drinking water from the Fiji Islands.
The brand also sponsors high-profile events like concerts, fashion weeks, and film festivals.
Among the most notable events was the 76th annual Golden Globes where a fashion model holding Fiji water on the red carpet became an internet sensation and was dubbed the “Fiji water girl” after photobombing numerous celebrity pictures.
Evian water dates back to 1789 when a French aristocrat Marquis de Lessert discovered the natural mineral water from the French Alps. As he continued drinking the water regularly, his health began improving with his kidney disease eventually healing. Word of the water’s alleged medical benefits spread, to the extent where doctors were recommending the “healing” water to patients.
Ever since, Evian has used its history to make the brand synonymous with health and wellness. By using the “Live Young” slogan, it’s often used athletes, babies, and actors in their campaigns to inspire consumers to pave their own way in life.
Through marketing efforts, similarly to Fiji Water, Evian has established itself in the most glamorous hotels, restaurants, and events across the globe.
Though an increasing number of brands use 100% recyclable bottles, there’s still undeniable pollution from transporting water across the globe. In the case of Fiji Water, for example, the nearest continent is 1,600 miles away. That creates an unnecessary difficulty in exporting the water. The biggest irony in all this is that perfectly healthy — tap or bottled — water is readily available in the U.S. as well.
While consumers in developed countries have an abundance of choices when it comes to water brands, 2.2 billion people around the world don’t have safely managed drinking water services, according to the World Health Organization. Though this isn’t necessarily the fault of the bottled water consumers, it’s an eye-opening difference between the developed and the developing parts of the world.
- In industries where product differentiation is inherently very difficult, creating a captivating narrative is often the tiebreaker.
- Brands have the power to pick their competitors. Seemingly, bottled water should have competed with tap water. Instead, through ingenious marketing, bottled water brands compete in the beverage market with less-healthy alternatives like soft drinks, teas, and cocktails.
- Before you buy bottled water, think about whether you really need it — a cheaper and more sustainable alternative could be right by your kitchen table.
While it’s no secret that the proliferation of bottled water has exacerbated the negative impact of consumerism on the environment, how brands react moving forward may dictate whether they get to keep their fair share in the market.