The $10B* bottled US water industry has enjoyed aggressive growth over the past decade. With over a 9% CAGR since 2000, the industry does not show many signs of slowing down (International Bottled Water Association). Today, one in two Americans drink bottled water while one in six drink it exclusively (Corporate Accountability International).
Marketers have fueled this growth by creating the perception in consumers minds that bottled water is better than tap water in three ways: it is healthier (i.e., based on purity, perceived health benefits), better tasting and more convenient.
While it may be convenient to pick up a cold bottle of water at the local convenience store (and perhaps a healthier alternative to soda), it is a misperception – fueled by marketers – that bottled water is healthier or necessarily tastes better than tap.
Bottled water is not necessarily healthier that tap: While different agencies govern tap water (Environmental Protection Agency) and bottled water (Food and Drug Administration), for the most part, similar standards have been adopted by both.
Consumers can not distinguish bottled and tap water by taste: Corporate Accountability International staged a “Tap Water Challenge”, a blind taste test in 8 US cities where consumers were asked to differentiate by taste between bottled (spring – Nestle’s Poland Spring and “purified” tap water – PepsiCo’s Aquifina or Coca-Cola’s Desani) and regular tap water. Overwhelmingly, participants could not distinguish one from another.
As such, the current brand positioning for bottle water is at odds with greens who view bottled water as detrimental to the environment (e.g., higher use of fuels to bottle and transport water) and, potentially, municipal supplies (e.g., may divert consumer interest and investment away from public water systems, unsustainable pumping of local aquifers). Brands may face negative impact if recent anti-bottled water campaigns such CAI’s “Think Outside the Bottle” resonate with even a small segment of consumers.
Marketers might want a preemptive strike:
Make product more eco-friendly and clearly label it so: Shift to eco-friendly packaging, tap local supplies to reduce transportation costs, ensure that the water comes from a sustainable source.
Donate % of profits to charity. Starbucks has it right. If you are selling a commodity to consumers at a premium price, why not ask them to help ensure that others have access to safe (public) drinking water as well? Through its Ethos brand, Starbucks plans to donate $10 million over the next five years for clean-water sources in poor countries (or about $0.05 per bottle).
*2005 forecast for producer revenue only, Beverage Marketing Corporation