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The marketing magic that drives thirst for bottled water

Associate professor Bruce Clark calls bottled sparkling- and still water “one of the best and worst things that ever happened in marketing.” The bottling, branding, and sale of what is largely a free commodity, he says, is a testament to the power of promotion.

“Water is a huge industry essentially created from nothing,” said Clark, coordinator of the marketing group in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. “It’s an example of what marketing can do with a product that’s fairly undifferentiated, and quite honestly, fairly boring.”

Associate professor Bruce Clark calls bottled sparkling- and still water “one of the best and worst things that ever happened in marketing.”

Sometimes that marketing is successful, as with the recent explosion in seltzer’s popularity. Other times, it ends up backfiring—a class action lawsuit against Poland Spring water alleges it’s not actually from a spring.

Shakespeare said that “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” Is that true with bottled waters?

Yes and no, Clark said.

“At its most fundamental, a brand name is building a set of associations in customers’ minds,” he said. “‘Poland Spring,’ for example, sounds healthy, pure, and nice. ‘Industrial Runoff’ probably wouldn’t sell as well.”

Those associations can start to create a feedback loop, though, where customers have certain expectations about a product based on its name. As Clark explained, “A brand name is a promise of value the customer is going to get out of a product.”

That’s why—even though people largely can’t tell the difference between bottled and tap water in a blind taste test—there were enough people to create a class-action lawsuit alleging that Poland Spring water is really groundwater, not spring water. (Nestlé Waters North, parent company of Poland Spring, refutes the claim.)

“As a company, you have to deliver based on the rules you set up,” Clark said. In other words, if you call it spring water, it needs to be from a spring. “This lawsuit is saying that the brand name is deceptive, that the product is not appropriate relative to what the brand name promises.”

Source aside, buying bottled water is still essentially paying for something that’s largely freely and readily accessible in the U.S. This, Clark said, is a marketing “chicken-and-egg scenario.”

“The benefits of bottled water are sold a few different ways: purity, health, and convenience,” he said. “And the convenience aspect is often overlooked. Think about it: Thirty years ago, you had to find a water fountain if you were thirsty. Now, you can just walk into any store, pick a bottle, and drink some water. Are there fewer water fountains now because people are just buying more water? Or are people buying more water because there are fewer fountains?”

The recent meteoric success of seltzer, bottled water’s sparkling relative, is the flipside of the story.

Where bottled water companies often seek to distinguish their goods based on explaining the lengthy collection and filtration process (collecting water from a spring, not just from any old groundwater), the low cost of flavoring seltzer means companies can capitalize on fleeting trends.

Polar, for example, released limited-run flavors including “Dragon Whispers,” “Mermaid Songs,” “Yeti Mischief,” and “Unicorn Kisses,” and consumers flocked to get them. A restaurant in Boston offered a seltzer flight this summer that included four “artisanal” seltzer flavors.

For each of these wildly successful flavors, there are likely dozens that quietly failed.

“To make them, these companies are essentially adding a small amount of flavor to water, so the cost is not very high,” Clark said. “It’s pretty easy, on a raw materials basis, to put out 30 different flavors and see what works.”

In this way, seltzers can offer a huge variety relatively risk-free.

“People like variety, they like trying new things,” Clark said. “Flavored water—fizzy or not—is a nice indulgence; it’s the kind of thing you can entice people to try.”

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