Water, Water Everywhere ... Lots of Brands to Drink

Who Says Branding Doesn't Work?

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Maureen Hall Maureen Hall
The next time a client questions the value of brand positioning and clever packaging, instead of backpedaling, I'm going to take him straight to the bottled water aisle of my grocery store. Amongst the shelves of Evian, Voss, Aquapod, Aquafina, Dasani, SmartWater, Propel and the dozens of other bottled water brands, I'm going to ask him to compare the price of the most expensive brand, at $5.99, to tap water that's essentially free from any faucet.

But wait, he'll probably say, bottled water tastes better than tap water. Does it? Or is that what their ad agencies wanted you to think? Eight billion gallons of bottled water is consumed annually in the U.S. and consumers list "better taste," "cleanliness" and "convenience" as the reasons for purchase. Television programs such as Showtime's Penn & Teller and ABC's 20/20 have conducted blind taste tests between several expensive water brands and tap water only to find that when the labels were removed, people could not taste a difference. In fact, the majority of people thought the unmarked tap water tasted great and had nice flavor.

Next they had scientists test the varying water samples for bacteria. Tap water proved as clean as any of the bottled waters, if not cleaner since municipal water is regulated by the EPA, not the FDA. That left the idea of greater convenience left to dispel -- not really a daunting task when you know that 54 percent of consumers purchase bottled water to drink at home, where there's a tap within easy reach at all times.

So if bottled water isn't really so much better than tap, how is it still an $11 billion industry? Maybe the real reasons people love grabbing that bottle of water are strictly emotional, like how it makes them feel better to walk out of a convenience store carrying a water instead of a soda, or how drinking bottled water reminds them of their trip to Italy, or when they used to play college ball. Funny man, Jim Gaffigan, jokes in his stand-up routine that people just drink bottled water because they heard it was from France.

Whatever the reason, it's quite clear that branding and the importance of packaging is alive and well because if bottled water companies can associate a value with a commodity like H2O -- which is available free -- imagine what a manufacturer of desired products can do -- or a small advertising agency for that matter.
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