There's a Clear Winner in Beverages: Bottled Water Tops Soda

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It's official: Water is the new beverage king.

Industry tracker Beverage Marketing Corp. today announced that bottled water surpassed carbonated soft-drinks in 2016 to become the largest beverage category by volume, capping what it described as a "remarkable, decades-long streak of vigorous growth."

The change at the top has long been anticipated with soda's woes mounting in recent years as result of health concerns and consistent targeting by activist groups, which have pushed measures like taxes on sugary drinks.

PepsiCo's Lifewtr
PepsiCo's Lifewtr Credit: PepsiCo

Total bottled water volume grew from 11.8 billion gallons in 2015 to 12.8 billion gallons last year, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. On a per capita basis, bottled water consumption exceeded 39 gallons compared with 38.5 gallons for soda. Carbonated soft-drink per-capita consumption exceeded 50 gallons as recently as 2006. Beverage Marketing Corp. projected that bottled water would hit the 50-gallon mark by the middle of next decade.

"Bottled water effectively reshaped the beverage marketplace," Michael Bellas, chairman-CEO of Beverage Marketing Corp., said in a statement. "When Perrier first entered the country in the 1970s, few would have predicted the heights to which bottled water would eventually climb. Where once it would have been unimaginable to see Americans walking down the street carrying plastic bottles of water, or driving around with them in their cars' cup holders, now that's the norm."

The report comes after another industry tracker, Beverage Digest, in February projected that bottled water volume consumption would surpass carbonated soft drinks in 2017. Beverage Digest noted that carbonated soft-drink dollar sales and profit margins are still greater than those of bottled waters, "much of which is sold in bulk multi-packs in the grocery channel." The largest bottled water brands by volume is Nestle PureLife, followed by Coca-Cola-owned Dasani and PepsiCo's Aquafina, according to Beverage Digest.

The changing dynamics have reshaped beverage marketing. The Super Bowl, long home to glitzy soda marketing, was used by two premium bottled water brands this year to run in-game ads. They included PepsiCo, which opted to run a spot for its new Lifewtr brand instead of its flagship cola. Wonderful Company's Fiji bottled water brand also ran a Super Bowl ad. Soda marketers such as Coca Cola Co. are still spending heavily on advertising, but they have shifted their strategy to emphasize smaller pack sizes, while prioritizing profit growth over volume growth.

Beverage Marketing Corp. reported that "bottled water's ascent coincided with and encouraged seismic shifts in consumer preferences for healthier refreshment and hydration. As the ultimate portable and affordable beverage, bottled water spawned new usage occasions and habits."

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