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Vitaminwater, Driftwell, and more: We study the functional water market

Now we’ve trudged into the second month of the new year, we’re hoping most of us have kicked off our new year’s resolutions after some procrastination. Our team’s resolutions look something like this: Read more, go to the gym, save money, bring down screen-time, learn a new language.

The post-2020 list is probably longer than usual, with pandemic productivity pressure making us think we need to come up with a multi-million-dollar idea for yesterday. Still, there is one goal that year after year leads our priorities: drinking more water.

But water is (and we apologise for this, dear Mother Earth) the most boring drink ever. Tasteless, monotonous, no surprises. And so easy to forget. To many, plain water is not appealing enough to get a space in their hectic daily routines, which have them struggling to stay properly hydrated.

To tackle this, people come up with strategies, and so does the market. When it comes to health trends, some come and go (throwback to 2017’s avocado on toast), others come to stay (as anyone with a meditation app knows), and others, like functional waters, slowly grow in popularity year after year.

Functional waters are H2O products enhanced with certain ingredients, like herbs, vitamins or minerals. This type of water can be useful, especially during high-intensity exercises, as it helps the body replenish sodium and other electrolytes quickly.

According to recent reports, the global functional water market was valued at USD 10.34 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach USD 18.24 billion by the end of 2025. Factors such as cheap cost, people’s demand for healthy hydration, and an interest in “healthier drinks” over traditional fizzy pop seem to have contributed to this growing trend.

Yet, the landscape appears different at each latitude. While, in the United States, functional water is a well-established trend, in the “old continent,” it is still emerging. This does not come as a surprise: historically, the European market has tended to be more conservative when it comes to jumping on board the latest shifts in food and beverage trends. American consumers however, seem to be more open to experimenting with new products.

Studying the American and European Functional Waters markets

To understand the functional water market and its target audience, we extracted thousands of reviews on Amazon and slightly over a thousand Instagram posts. We used our proprietary Culture AI tools to analyse nearly 20 functional water brands: some of them American (Propel, DriftWell, Vitamin Water, LifeWTR, Hydrive, Bai, Sparkling Ice) and some of them European (Aqua Libra, Benefit Water, Brain Fud Da-ash, Ganic, Loveau, Multipower, Rubicon, Ugly, Vieve, Vitamin Well and Volvic, VitaminAqua and Vitamin Well).

Insights from Social data: comparing functional water brands on Instagram

Telling brand stories with happiness, affiliation and creativity

Our AI-powered semiotic analysis identified these three emotions as top emotions present in the instagram posts.

Posts identified as containing Happiness showed people enjoying physical activity. Affiliation was detected in posts communicating being part of a team that shares the joint effort to stay healthy, and creativity was found in posts with clever, experimental design and content which take a leaf out of hip, trendy D2C brands.

The American Market: Propel, DriftWell, and Vitamin Water

Following a more traditional yet still effective approach, we have Propel. Selling itself as the essential drink for active, fit people (no surprises here as it is a Gatorade product), Propel focuses on engagement around well-structured workout and yoga routines schedules, promoting a profound sense of affiliation.

DriftWell, on the other hand, adopts a wellness-centric appeal rather than physical, offering an inner journey of self-care. It subtly introduces itself as the perfect companion to wrap the day up, meditate and enjoy cozy spaces — it’s no wonder why solitude stood out as an emotion detected by our Culture AI.

Meanwhile, Vitamin Water differentiates itself with its funky vibe, following a meme marketing strategy (clearly displaying a sense of creativity, its top emotion detected by our culture AI). Their target audience seems to be young millennials and Generation Z — many of the references used are for the digital generation.

European Water Brands: Vitamin Well, Vitamin Vichy’s and Vitamin Aqua

Meanwhile, Swedish Vitamin Well reaches for brand ambassadors to reinforce their motto: “rich in functions, low in calories.” Their social media is full of images featuring sportspeople (runners, swimmers, skaters, tennis players) and their striking, stylish animal-print cans.

Putting the athletic vibe aside, Vitamin Vichy positions itself as a drink for the indoors — the brand promises to keep users fully-focused during the day and enhance their mental capabilities and productivity regardless of the activity they are facing (their favorites emojis: 👨‍💻👩‍💻💻). This is manifested through creative designs and templates.

There is nothing disruptive about drinking water, yet Vitamin Aqua makes it look like getting a new tattoo: irreverent and cheeky. The Romanian brand attempts a risky combination of vitamins, Pop, and magazine life. VitaminAqua seems to send one message: “drinking water (and getting your vitamins) is sexy” (sensuality ranked 4th among the top emotions transmitted by this brand!).

Insights from consumer reviews on Amazon: What are the different pull factors affecting American and European consumers?

Across both continents, the trigger for buying functional water is the practical, health-driven need to drink more water. Flavored waters are tasty solutions for those who attempt to reach healthy levels of hydration but struggle to achieve the daily recommended fluid intake.

Sparkling versions offer an alternative for frustrated soda lovers, for whom finding replacement for Coke is a desperate need. Overall, people also appreciate the artsy, easy-on-the-eye bottle designs, and good-looking labelling and sleek bottle shapes set them apart from the plain water bottles we’re used to seeing.

Both American and European consumers were big on avoiding an artificial taste.

Stevia and sucralose are the most used sweeteners, but generally, zero calories comes with a sugar-free taste, unbearable for some users. For functional water brands, this is their gift and their curse.

Consumers praise (and pay for) products that manage to blend sweeteners in an indistinguishable manner.

Examples of positive reviews:

  • “Finally something that doesn’t taste like chemicals’’,
  • “I was intrigued by the blend of sweeteners, and I wondered if it would make a difference. And it did!”

Examples of negative reviews:

  • “Supposedly with fruit flavor. It doesn’t taste like fruit. More like chemicals.”
  • “it had an overpowering sickly sweet Splenda taste.”

Moving on from these commonalities, here are some differences in consumer behavior based on their geography:

Sweetness vs Freshness:

Berries are American’s favorites (with raspberry and blackberries at the top of the list), while lime and watermelon are the choice of Europeans, who appear to prefer more refreshing flavours above sweetness.

Americans: The Connoisseur Consumer

The American functional water market is a mature one — consumers hence tend to be more well-versed with these products, and therefore demanding. Greater familiarity also means that they are more aware of the formula details. Some water brands contain 1% of juice while others have as much as 3%, which greatly determines how rich or plain the drink is. Consumers pay attention to these details and are quick to spot changes.

Failing to communicate any changes of the formula (taste) is easily spotted and criticised by users, who demand that it be specified on the labeling. They want to know precisely what they’re drinking to judge it accordingly.

America’s main demands:

Not too fizzy or too natural.

With the exception of soda-lovers, most people do not want drinks that resemble Coke and other sugary beverages, preferring drinks that feel healthy and organic. They want ways to look after themselves, and, psychologically, high levels of carbonation may play against that.

However, brands need to walk a fine line though, as products that are “too natural” also draw criticism. People are paying (not a low price at all!) for an experience, one that they cannot recreate in their home kitchens by merely slicing up some fruit to put into their water (“I could have made it myself”). They want a drinking experience more elevated than that, and functional waters need to be aware of this need.

A more reasonable price.

In the United States, the extensive offer of functional waters positions it as an everyday consumer item. Perhaps this mindset is behind the frequent mention of cost in these reviews. Many users claim that even if they wanted to, they would not be able to repurchase the product. In Europe, functional waters seem to be understood as a premium product, so customer complaints are less common.


People want to be able to get the specific flavor they like the most on every occasion (otherwise, they do not acquire the product), which is not always possible in the physical retail as favorite flavors tend to be sold out to Amazon.

Europeans: The Pleasantly Surprised Consumer

European consumers appear to be more skeptical about functional waters’ offerings. First-time users question their beneficial properties and their flavor, often having low expectations. Phrases like “positive surprise”, “pleasantly surprised” and “particularly impressed” were detected as frequent consumer reactions. Brands could consider this surprise element when it comes to crafting marketing collateral.

Main demands:

Less is more

The European market is even more demanding of natural, subtle flavors with a fruity hint. Our Culture AI detected a cluster of top phrases talking about subtlety — phrases like ‘subtle flavour’, ‘subtle taste’, ‘subtle yet lovely’ and ‘subtle undercurrent’ were identified as top bigrams (two-word phrases) in reviews.

This signals that understatedness is a quality European consumers like about functional water products. Users appear to be less tolerant of pronounced sweetness than their American counterparts- perhaps preferring that this feature stays safely in the soft drinks lane, and that the functional water products have a clear differentiator in this aspect.

This also suggests that perhaps the ‘soft drink but healthier’ perception of functional waters might not be as dominant in European markets and that consumers see them as two different categories altogether.

Example Reviews:

  • “I love these because the taste is really subtle and refreshing.”
  • “Refreshingly fizzy with 4 delicate flavors.”
  • “Gave me a real kick but actually tasted great and natural.”

Ethical responsibility.

Amazon reviews revealed that Europeans pay particular attention to environmental values and philanthropic vocation of the brands. Consumers want to support brands that show respect for the environment or contribute to any charity causes. In an age where we are seeing greater acknowledgement of the climate crisis and a strong impetus to make responsible decisions, the ethical practices of a brand could go far in sweetening the deal for potential consumers.

Some final thoughts from us:

What we see now: Brands are selling the wonders of Life Optimization
Extra elements like antioxidants, vitamins, caffeine, guarana, and electrolytes are a big plus. People are more willing to incorporate brands that offer additional health benefits into their everyday routines. It’s the “kill two birds with one stone” mindset: Who wouldn’t want a product that boosts multivitamins and minerals while keeping you hydrated?

What we think would be cool to see: Brands marketing to niche needs

Talking to the vegan community: This is also an option for people with vegan diets who need certain supplements to get their vitamins. For example, some users highlight functional water’s capacity to tackle B12 and magnesium deficiency.

Talking to the sugar-free crew: Could functional waters be positioned as a diabetic-friendly and weight-loss friendly indulgence? In speaking to consumers, functional water brands have yet to turn their attention to often overlooked demographics like diabetics, people with gluten intolerances, and more. We think an opportunity for inclusive product innovation and marketing awaits. Just think how great it would be to see a diabetic-friendly range!

Write to us at anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai to learn more about our work.




Quilt.AI creates culturally intelligent AI products to achieve impact at scale. https://quilt.ai

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