Bottled water is one of the greatest successes in marketing practices of the last century. Although water utilities in many countries sell water that is perfectly drinkable, bottled water companies have convinced the public that their value proposition is better than that of tap water.
In an old episode of the Australian sho Gruen Transfer, panellists discussed why people are willing to pay so much more for bottled water than for tap water. Even though tap water provides the same benefits as bottled water, the price difference is gigantic. Marketing executive Russel Howcroft argued that this difference in price exists because water utilities are “lazy marketers”.
This article discusses a core ingredient of bottled water marketing to explain the high willingness to pay.
Bottled Water Marketing Strategy
One of the strategies often used in bottled water marketing is by emphasising the natural origins of their product. While bottled water advertising often shows beautiful mountains and pristine springs, water utilities prefer to advertise the technology they use to treat water. Whether these origin stories are true is doubtful. Nestle has been sued for falsely promoting the origin of bottled water, and researchers published a finding that tap water is inherently safer than bottled water.
Nestlé is in trouble because its “spring water” source is municipal tap water. Nestlé’s advertising campaign claims the contents of Ice Mountain Water to be spring water, while it is distinctly referred to as “drinking water”, which is defined as “municipal water and well water…” in their documents. The water is further processed by Nestlé’s treatment plants and branded with images of pristine glacial lakes and mountains.
This strategy is standard for bottled water companies. Given that tap water is identical to tap water, at 1000 times the price, bottled water companies need to increase the value proposition of their offering by emphasising how their product is different to tap water. A common strategy used by bottled water companies is to highlight the origin of the water and link it to increased benefits, such as health. Just look at Fiji Water, Evian and any other bottled water brand to see how they connect their water to a pristine natural environment.
This strategy is very similar to the way toilet paper is sold. Advertising for toilet paper creates an emotional connection with the product by emphasising a perfect lifestyle. Bottled water establishes this emotional connection by highlighting the health benefits of water through a connection with pristine natural surroundings.
Many water utilities don’t implement origin strategies very well. Municipal water utilities are often focusing on treatment processes instead of the natural origin of their tap water. Utility engineers are proud of their achievement and love to tell their community about the technology needed to deliver drinkable water to each house. This strategy is set for failure because it emphasises the production process without any emotional attachment. Problems with the acceptance of recycled sewage as drinking water forcefully illustrate this point.
Water utilities could become less lazy by showing customers the natural origins of their water. In the end, all water comes from nature and tap water is as good, if not better, than bottled water.