How to Sell Bottled Water to Thirsty Bros

by Matthew J.X. Malady

thirsty boy

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer Andrea Ayres-Deets tells us more about the thirst for wholesome hydrating water.

Tech bros at coffee shop are surrounded by various coconut waters, debating their finer complexities.
— Andrea Ayres Deets (@missafayres) March 24, 2015

Andrea! So what happened here?

I live in Palo Alto and work remotely. So every day at around 1:00 p.m., I usually venture off to one of the various coffee shops around town.

It’s fairly common to see and hear people pitching products, having meetings about their startups, and yelling at one another about code. Invariably, I find myself listening in. Tuesday was no different. As I sipped my coffee, I observed the communal table in front of me — two men were sitting at the end of it surrounded by various coconut waters and water bottles. I counted at least seven different kinds of water.

One of the gentlemen was apparently a water industry veteran. He wore a black pullover sweater with dark denim jeans and had the kind of carefree confidence only someone who had been successful in selling water to people who have the stuff running out of their faucets could possess. He looked like the progeny of Eugene Levy and Harvey Keitel. This was a man with answers, and the dude sitting across from him wanted those answers, desperately. Young tech bro had a startup. He was the founder of a sports drink — water that wasn’t just water, it was more than water!

Early on, they sat there for a time talking about which words they should use: “Superior hydration”? “Natural hydration”? “Quench, nutritional, hydration”? Then the startup bro attempted to clarify the target audience, which he described as: a weekend warrior, businessperson, athlete-triathlete, health-conscious progressive with an attention to detail who was both aspirational and locational.

The older man piped up: “You want to create a sort of harmony! You have to have a sense of purpose. Water has to be functional.” He launched into a discussion about the importance of packaging by grabbing an Essentia water bottle (a form of alkalized water that boasts a pH level of 9.5). “People essentially have no idea how labels work,” he said. “They think ‘Oh I need that much fiber or that much protein,’ but they get very confused by it.”

The younger guy kept on circling back to his product, to specific “challenge points” they were now facing. (“We don’t want to be drawn into a discussion of which water is better,” he noted. “No, no, no of course not,” the grizzled water-marketing veteran agreed.) He discussed how they wanted to reach out to triathletes, a segment he believed was grossly underserved by the sports water community (which apparently is a thing that exists).

But before they could discuss broader marketing concepts, they had to talk about the science of water. The veteran imparted yet another water bombshell: “You have to have minerals! Minerals must be there. Purified water is science. Use science to help you! It’s a very technical scientific process, and consumers don’t understand that.” He suggested doing hydration studies to get a sense of how hydration works. Once the young dude had that information, he could take those studies to investors.

The Eugene Levy look-a-like raised his voice slightly. “Viscosity!” he exclaimed. “Do you know what that is?” No comment from the young guy. “Viscosity, you know like the fluidity, is going to be very big. It’s an emerging trend. What you want to do is establish your baseline viscosity for your post-workout…”

I tuned out for a moment, but came back around just in time to learn that having a successful water product is about three things: taste, packaging, and functionality. There had to be a way, the young man said, to differentiate their water from the other waters out there. “It’s not just water, it’s better than that!”

The expert replied with valuable water marketing lesson number 220: “Water should be non-intimidating.”

When the young man talked about this sports water drink being a good source of fiber, no “a superior source of fiber and a good source of potassium and protein,” the elder interrupted him. “You know you can’t just say, ‘this is good for the heart,’” he implored. Because people will say, “‘Well, where is the science?’ You’ve got to say it right.”

The two discussed the importance of making functional statements that are direct enough for the idiotic consumer to understand but vague enough to avoid entering into functional claim territory. The difference, evidently, being that one says how the water functions and the other implies some science that may or may not exist to back it up. The older man held up a coconut water bottle and read from the label: “The consumer thinks they know what all this means!” Water marketing, it turns out, deals in broad generalities because to use anything more specific may cause the consumer to ask pesky questions like, “Where’s the evidence to support this claim?”

“Is your product organic?” asked the older man.

“It’s organic compliant,” the tech bro answered.

“So, it’s not organic?”

“It’s not certified organic, no.”

This was a bit of a buzz kill, because now they couldn’t use the “certified organic label.”

The conversation was heating up and the exchanges began to come more quickly. “We can say its sweetened with natural flavors,” the young man said, to try and put a more positive spin on things. Then the a-ha moment came to them both at very nearly the same time. The catch phrase they’d been searching for: “Wholesome hydration!”

The older man’s voice got louder, his back straightened: “The word ‘wholesome’ is very California.

“People will see the words ‘wholesome hydration’ and think, ‘Hey no one’s talking about wholesome hydration, what is that?”

“Yeah, kinda get in on the Whole Foods thing,” the young man added.

They were amped now.

“It’s about everyday hydration. Healthy living. Elevate.”

“You can say the water supports a healthy diet, but you can’t rely on that. You have to tell a story, you have to build a community,” the older guy said.

The younger man knew all about this! There was a partnership they were considering, “with, like, the American Cancer Society or breast cancer or something . . . .”

This seemed to worry the veteran. “You have to be careful with partnerships or endorsements from major organizations,” he said. “You don’t want to associate your product with things like cancer. You want to avoid partnerships with things that are unhealthy. You don’t want to scare people, or make yourself a target.”

“True, true. What we want,” said the younger man, “is to be the fringe-premium, to cater to more of that techie image.”

Yes, it was all coming together now. Wholesome hydration — water that is better than water, because it’s more than just water.

And with that, their two-hour conversation wrapped up. The older man collected his water bottle samples and carted them off to continue his mission of bringing water to people who already have access to it.

But why do we need another brand of specialized water? We don’t, right? Why would anyone think we do? Maybe I’m missing something.

We may not need another brand of water on the market, but these gentlemen are hell bent on giving it to us anyway. Think about all the healthy tech bros out there doing their triathlons who don’t have a water that’s just for them. Consider the different segmentations of affluent white people who don’t have water specifically made with their exact niche interest in mind.

Lesson learned (if any)?

Whatever opinion you thought marketers had about consumers, lower it. Listening to these men talk, it’s hard to imagine how the average consumer manages to function day-to-day. To these guys, people are highly malleable, open to the power of suggestion, and extremely interested in pH balances, even if they don’t know what that means. All it takes is a scientist to prove something about hydration, use that as fodder for your investors, and there you go, instant capital.

As I listened to them discuss water, the science of hydration, impressive store display units for water, and the details of what the younger man dubbed a “high altitude bottle,” I wondered what their reality must be like. Whatever it was, I couldn’t imagine it being a reality most other people lived in.

Just one more thing.

Living and working in Palo Alto, I overhear lots of discussions like this one. They are the conversations of people who live in such an insular community that they can’t begin to understand how insulting or privileged their words sound to those who may be within earshot. Debating how to best market bottled water to a small segment of the population while the fourth year of an oppressive drought rages on seemed more than a little tone deaf.

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Photo by m01229