From 2003 to 2010, the famously skeptical magician duo Penn & Teller hosted a Showtime series called Penn & Teller: Bullshit. During each 30-minute episode, the two magicians sought to “hunt down as many purveyors of bullshit” as possible. Since the series aired during the rapid rise of Dasani and Aquafina, Penn & Teller decided to run several blind taste tests taking aim at overpriced bottled water.
Their hypothesis: that, at best, we can’t tell the difference between tap water and bottled water; at worst, we like tap water more than bottled water.
The duo took their experiment to a trendy Southern California restaurant, where they enlisted a (fake) water sommelier. The sommelier brought guests a water tasting menu, listing luxury bottled waters such as “L’Eau de Robinet” and “Agua de Culo.” After sampling them, most patrons were wow-ed by how good the water tasted:
“Definitely better than tap water […] It’s got a flavor that, it almost feels like a beverage other than water, but without sugar or any additives.”
“Seems smoother than tap water.”
“Better than LA County water!”
In actuality, all this luxury water was sourced from a garden hose out back behind the restaurant. And L’Eau de Robinet and Agua de Culo weren’t real designer waters: one is the French word for “tap water” and the other the Spanish for “ass water.”
Patrons placed a high value on the water simply because it was bottled and packaged to appear fancy.
In another blind experiment run by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2001, the show’s producers pitted tap water against water giants Poland Spring, 0-2, and Evian. The results: New York City tap water won out by a comfortable margin.
This is the state of the bizarre multibillion-a-year bottled water market. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether bottled water actually tastes better or is healthier than tap water. Yet designer water brands have been able to, through clever marketing and distribution, transform a public good into a product sold at a thousand-percent markup.
All of this is pretty astounding stuff when you consider that, in 1975, the bottled water industry was almost non-existent. Back then, the average American consumed 1.2 gallons of bottled water:
35 years later, Americans have come to drink 28.3 gallons of bottled water per capita, which is now second only to carbonated soft drinks.
There are many variables at play that have contributed to the phenomenon of half-finished bottles of water strewn across office space (see: drinking more water, eating organic, simple convenience). But to limit the discussion to just these would be to overly simplify a trend that has a pretty intriguing back story.
In the mid-1970s, French mineral water brand Perrier launched a massive marketing campaign in the United States to bring the company’s signature bubbly water to American shores. Soda sales were slowing down, and Americans were becoming more and more health-conscious. As previously mentioned, though, people didn’t really drink much bottled water in 1975. While Deer Park and Poland Spring were around back then, their sales numbers weren’t great (Poland Spring was actually on the verge of bankruptcy).
So the marketers and copywriters at Perrier came up with a genius angle for selling water: they called it “Earth’s First Soft Drink”:
Future Perrier ads would tout how natural, pure, youthful, and straight-from-the-earth their bubbly water was. Other bottled water brands followed suit, and this positioning is still pretty common — just search for “bottled water ad” on Google Images and you’ll see bottles of water wrapped in leaves or overlooking a valley or something to that effect. Other “growth hacks” used by bottled water brands: rousing public fear of tap water with ads calling it poisonous; and creating/sponsoring national campaigns to urge people to drink more water.
To be fair, tap water is an easy target because a) it’s had a dubious reputation in the past, b) it’s overseen by the government, and c) it’s the antagonist of the “poison the water supplies to bring the Second Coming quicker” conspiracy theory.
Clever marketing and brand positioning played a large role in the emergence of bottled water in the United States. However, the industry would not have reached the heights that it had without “Big Bev” and the scale of distribution at its disposal.
Economies of Scale
Around the turn of the century, big food & beverage companies made their splashy entrance. In 1994, PepsiCo introduced their own bottled water brand, Aquafina. Then Coca-Cola launched Dasani in 1999. These two brands stood to compete with Perrier, Deer Park, and Poland Spring (all of which had been acquired by Nestle by then). In part due to massive food & beverage corporations now entering the space, bottled water has become even more lucrative. Between 2000 and 2010, bottled water consumption per capita grew by an average of 11% per year.
The bottled water market is now dominated by the same people who sell us fizzy sugar water and ovaltine:
The economies of scale available to these giant corporations have allowed them to achieve relatively easily a level of distribution that smaller companies haven’t been able to replicate. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle have wisely leveraged their existing distribution contracts with airports, convenience stores, and the like to make their bottled water ubiquitous. And when you have the ability to distribute and market widely, who cares if the product isn’t mind-blowing?
Disruptive marketing combined with economies of scale have created a feedback loop that has imprinted on our cultural consciousness the idea that it is normal, healthy, and convenient to treat bottled water like it’s a “lifestyle” drink. Over at his brilliant blog Melting Asphalt, Kevin Simler explains the concept of cultural imprinting:
“Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a “chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party.”
This is particularly important to keep in mind when thinking about how all these bottled waters have branded, packaged, and sold themselves. Fiji Water is an “artesian aquifer water” that is “untouched” by human waste. Poland Spring is “green”. Smartwater is sexy. Dasani and Aquafina are pure, splashy fun. Which personality do you want to be associated with?
But, as Penn & Teller showed us, when we’re primed to think a certain way about something in fancy packaging, we tend to fall for the sleight-of-hand. So what if Fiji Water was found to have more arsenic in it than Cleveland tap water? Or that Poland Spring was sued for using groundwater instead of water coming from a natural spring? Or that Dasani and Aquafina were both found to be sourced from tap water?
What a weird concept indeed. However convenient bottled water is, the demand for it has been largely manufactured by the people selling it.
But don’t mind us at the SocialRank office as we continue to stock our fridges with Fiji. That shit is great.