Bottled water looks set to defy Darwin's law, writes Barrie Clarke. From its original target - young women - the market has evolved to include children and a 'measure of urban distinction'How long will sales of packaged water go on growing? Common sense says there must be a limit. Environmental costs are high and increasingly public in our resource-challenged society. Bottled water is in the premier league for unnecessary food miles. The icon of the jet set is now also lord of the landfill. Prices are thought high even in relation to other soft drinks.
Contrast with high-quality tap water from well managed networks. The costs of packaging, delivery and disposal are low. It is always fresh, available and by most standards cheap. Surely packaged water brands, despite appearances, will soon be the dinosaurs of consumer marketing? Well no actually. Those toothy expressions are probably smiles.
In 2005, the UK market was worth £1.6B and showing 8% growth. True, retail power may have taken the froth off top brands. Evian in bulk (and I mean heavy) could be had for 30p a litre last month and 'table' water for less than 10p.
Yet the market leaders - Volvic, Evian, Highland Spring - all grew value by more than 17% in 2004-05. This is a business that may have defined itself against mains water but has continually refined its act and taken its chances. For a string of reasons, the category is destined to deny the Darwinists for a few years yet.
Almost everyone wants to be healthier and some products are feeling the heat. Whereas mineral water once scored points off tap water, now the soft target is sugary drinks. Worries about obesity, caffeine and children's ability to concentrate have strengthened the appeal. OK, post-holiday 'detox' diets supported by mineral waters were widely mocked this year, but the strength of brands such as Evian in key segments such as 15- to 34-year-old women is a significant advantage.
Everyone knows that taste, smell and visual appearance are the elements of drinks aesthetics. In blind taste tests, tap water performs as well or better than mineral water, yet consumers consistently say that mineral water is nicer. The reason of course is that the decisive element is none of the above. In the 1970s standard lager (3.4% ABV) took warm-beer Britain by storm.
The total absence of difference between brands showed brewers that their customers were in effect drinking the advertising. Heineken refreshes the parts and George the Hofmeister bear were famous examples and the realisation soon became conventional wisdom. What we taste is a carefully moulded and nurtured brand image.
Living on the move is the core characteristic of urban life, so distribution or place marketing is crucial to winning young, modern customers. You must be universally available and easily portable. This was always good for soft drinks but a goldmine for mineral water - consider the power of the contrast between pristine mountain streams and the yuk of city grime. It will be interesting to see if efforts to exploit the urban myth for itself are successful.
The packaged industry has ploughed some familiar furrows. But in a maturing sector, brand development and range extension become essential. Following the core female message, it was natural to turn to children. And encouraging kids to drink water brands was mercifully uncomplicated compared with the problems facing other big profit earners.
The recruitment of our simple friend SpongeBob SquarePants by Volvic Splash looks like a clever link. Some saw Evian cosmetics and pamper products as a high-risk extension, but 'hydration' was a firm and growing platform in skin products.
Most intriguing for 2006 will be the launch of Drench, a spring water from Britvic, aimed at young men and women and therefore demanding street credibility. The aim is "the ultimate 21st Century bottled water" and a "measure of urban distinction". Definitely worth a go but how will they manage the pristine source issue? And remember what happened to Dasani.
The world has a lot invested in packaged water. Whether you produce, bottle, promote, deliver or retail it, you have good reasons to work for its continued success.
We can expect companies, governments and, yes, millions of consumers to wish it well. And the upside already includes a big contribution to awareness of hydration and its proven importance for good health.
In a future article, I will look at tap water in this fascinating marketing environment.