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Would you be surprised if I told you that branded bottled water was just tap water? You may have missed the news story from October 2015, but following an investigation into brand Aquafina, parent company PepsiCo was quick to quash the 'tap water' rumours. Instead, the company said this:
"It [the water] originates from public water sources and is then purified through a rigorous, seven-step purification process called Hydro-7™."
"Hydro-7™ is a state-of the-art process that includes reverse osmosis and other filtering methods. It removes things like chlorides, salts and other substances that can affect a water’s taste."
"That’s how we can ensure that you’ll get a clean, pure taste every time you open a bottle of Aquafina."
Convinced it is more than just tap water?
Of course, one story doesn't mean the whole industry is sinking plastic bottles under water taps at a million gallons a minute, a la Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, but it got me thinking about why we, as consumers, buy bottled water.
Survival vs. super-branded
Let's be honest, whoever decides to sell bottled water needs a pretty convincing marketing pitch or super-branded unique selling point to now compete with the plethora of brands available.
Aside from second and third world countries that rely on bottled water for hygiene and safety reasons, we in the western-world have access to water for free. In the UK, we have these metal things called taps that are great for washing, cleaning as well as drinking out of!
Sarcasm aside, we obviously need water to survive, but our growing need to buy billions of bottles is surely not down to us 'needing' water to live, is it?
Back in 1980, the UK drank just 30 million litres of bottled water in a year. In 2015, we gulped down (or left to get warm in a car's cup holder) two billion litres. That means the average Brit now drinks about 40 litres of bottled water a year, each.
Convenience or something else?
So what is driving these consumption levels? Many people will point towards the convenience that bottled water brings. Whether you go to the gym, have a fun-filled day at a theme park, or are simply buying lunch from the local supermarket, a bottle of water is 'easy' to pick up, drink and dispose of - much easier than getting a cup and going to a kitchen to fill it up!
Perhaps the growing trend is down to the UK becoming a more health-conscious society? Pressures from thought-leaders and parent groups forced the government to implement a sugar tax on fizzy drinks in 2016. A culmination of higher prices on Coca-Cola, et al. alongside a healthier lifestyle may be pushing people to pick up a bottle of Evian, rather than 7up.
Or maybe we're drinking more water because we're talking about it more. One Google search of "how much water should you drink a day" pings back 382 million search results in 0.82 seconds. As you would expect, the NHS features high in the search results and of course endorses water drinking above any other liquid products.
Whatever the reason, this growing trend, probably stimulated by the bottled water marketers around the world, has created a fascinating industry and brand positioning strategy for producers. As you will see from my research below, different brands have taken fairly similar approaches.
Choose your water
I choose a water based on what's available in the supermarket fridge - although I may spend an extra 15 pence if it gets me a cool new bottle design! The taste, of course, is going to be very similar, so how can producers stand out from the crowd?
Their branding of course!
Surprisingly, however, when it comes to the bottled water market, there is a distinct lack of branding strategy. To find these results, I researched the brands of bottled water available to buy in supermarkets (in October 2016) via shopping website, My Supermarket. To ensure a fair comparison with the 'bigger brands' I discounted all supermarket brands that are available. This is what I found...
Location is by far the most popular brand strategy, as the cluster in the top right-hand corner shows. While the strategy is similar, what each individual location offers is a uniqueness that nowhere else (supposedly) can provide. From the depths of the Peak District, to the mountainous and distant lands of Fiji, many brands are battling it out for market share based on their water being 'the best'.
Prices wildly differ in the market. While Glaceau Smart Water can be bought for as little as 8.3p per 100ml for an individual bottle, expect to pay almost three-times the amount for a bottle of Norway's finest VOSS water (28.6p). If we were to add supermarket brands into the graph, you'd expect to see them occupy the bottom right-hand corner of the market, due to the lower price point they are offered at.
Standing out from the crowd
A new entry into the market is Glaceau Smart Water - did you know it's owned by Coca-Cola? Coke chiefs must have drawn out exactly the same graph above and realised the potential the water market had. As well as growing consumption, there was a gap in the market for a brand that focussed on the product, rather than the location it was taken from - and pricing it lower than anyone else.
"Inspired by clouds" Glaceau is "vapor-distilled" and "inspired by the way nature purifies water". The production process also includes re-adding electrolytes and minerals for a distinct taste that is pure and crisp.
Fronted by Jennifer Aniston in the US, and Kylie Minogue in the UK, Coca-Cola have seen tremendous returns on their new brand. The Guardian reported in 2016 that the brand is now worth £21.9 million and are churning out 56,000 bottles per hour to meet demand in their factories. But is it the revolutionary product it says it is?
Smart strategy, not so smart water
Glaceau Smart Water certainly 'talks the talk' but a recent report documented by the Daily Mail has revealed it doesn't 'walk the walk'. Expert dietician Rebecca McManamon said in the report:
"The bottom line is there is no benefit in demineralising water, getting rid of the minerals and adding them back in."
"The term smartwater implies it is either intelligent to drink it or it makes you more intelligent, although that it is not an explicit claim made by Coca-Cola. But there is no indication it is wiser to drink this water."
"The way this water has been processed is no better or worse for you than regular tap water."
It isn't the first time Coca-Cola have fallen upon this issue. Remember Dasani water? Described as 'Purified Water', it was axed in 2004 after production research found it was simply tap water.
We live in a world where brands are used as a key differentiator in the marketplace. There isn't a product more basic on earth than water, and yet somehow, marketers have found a way to distil a unique selling point from their products - if they can't rely on the location of a 'natural source'.
While many have successfully used their location to their advantage, others may have overstepped the line in order to achieve a greater market share. However, we all need water to survive, so whether it comes out of a tap or not, does it really matter?
There may be a secret world to the branded bottled water industry, but at the end of the day, water is water.