You know a product has made an impact when cities start banning it. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor, has banned city departments from buying bottled water. (SF Exec. Order) Like most everyone in the Western world:
San Franciscans have responded to marketing campaigns to purchase bottled water and record amounts of bottled water have been purchased by San Francisco consumers and local government at the expense of the environment.
Bottled water represents one of the boldest ideas I’ve ever seen, but not necessarily in a good way. Marketers have turned water into a branded commodity. We’ve gone from trusting and drinking the water that comes out of the tap to teasing our palettes with the exotic waters of Fiji. Some restaurants even employ water sommeliers.
Although Mayor Newsom’s action represents a growing sentiment, I believe we have a ways to go before bottled water disappears. Pardon the pun, but based on the sales and consumption numbers, we’ve swallowed the bottled water story:
- Americans drink 26,000,000,000 liters per year (link)
- U.S. sales of bottled water hit $9.2 billion in 2004 (link)
Making his point about bottled water, George Carlin said, “Ever wonder about those people who spend $2 apiece on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backward.” (link) I’ll admit my guilt. I buy bottled water, more out of convenience than any safety issue. At home, I prefer the tap water from my personal well to bottled water. I do laugh at the reality that “roughly 40% of bottled water begins as tap water; often the only difference is added minerals that have no marked health benefit.” (link) The idea that bottled water is “safer” looks questionable given that:
…more regulations [govern] the quality of tap water than bottled water. In the U.S., water-quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for tap water, for instance, are more stringent than the Food and Drug Administration’s standards for bottled water. (link)
So where does that leave us? Powerful branding.
“Branding is extremely important for water,” says Chiranjeev Kohil, professor of marketing at California State University at Fullerton. “In a lot of categories, you can duplicate products and get an edge on quality or attributes, but that edge can be shaved off very quickly by competitors. In the water category, there is no technological superiority. The only thing that differentiates one water from the next is the brand.” (link)
Marketers Go to the Source
They talk about the purity of the Alps (Evian; if you get a chance, go look at their current site. On the U.S. site, once you get the Flash loaded, a topless woman, coyly positioned in front of the Alps, implies what about the brand?) The untouched snows of Norway are appealing too (Voss). But both Aquifina and Dasani are filtered tap water. So how do they compete? They rely on extensive distribution networks, via Pepsico and Coca-Cola respectively, to compete in the water market.
Each brand has created an image, and depending on your personal preference, you subscribe to that idea. I was surprised the first time a waiter offered me a choice of bottled water after I indicated I only wanted water to drink. I wanted to ask him if they were using bottled water to cook my food. Otherwise, why pay for bottled if the tap water was safe to drink?
The Stamp of Safety
When you tie the question of safety to a product, you seem to get more attention. By implying that what comes out of the tap isn’t safe, marketers don’t have to prove they’re right because we think, “Better safe than sorry.” Safety is used to sell everything from tires to food to clothing. The definition of safety—environmental, physical, psychological—varies, but at its core, and in spite of our cynicism, the marketing of safety is a bold idea that still captures our attention.
We march off to war because we’re told we’ll be safer. We put seat belts in cars to keep us safe while driving. We drink pasteurized milk, because we believe it’s safer that way. Everything from the biggest, life-changing decisions to what we pull out of the fridge can be sold with a safety stamp.
Think about it. How many things do you do during the day that are driven by the idea they make you safer? And how do you determine “safer than what?” How do you value the trade off for additional safety?
When the definition is deserved, when a product, a service, or a belief actually makes you safer, you need to know about. You need to know so you can make a decision about whether it’s worth the trade off for more safety. But how do you make a decision when you aren’t given all the facts?
Without understanding possible side effects, how do you decide to take a drug that may cure the symptoms? (Alli, anyone?) What’s worse the original illness or the cure? How do you select insurance if they don’t tell you about the non-covered services? You may feel safer when you buy the insurance, but if it doesn’t cover the one thing you need, the safety is an illusion.
More Than Bottled Water
This post started out as a review of bottled water. Then, as I thought about why we buy it, I realized that something bigger, something that goes beyond bottled water, drives so many of our decisions—the illusion of safety. Marketers know this fact, and they drive it home every chance they get. Who doesn’t want to be safe?
Truly safe things rarely require advertising. The end result is proof enough. But when millions are spent to communicate safety (e.g., bottled water), ask yourself why. Mass death from drinking tap water hasn’t been in the news. If you believe that bottled water is safer, you might think there’s a conspiracy afoot.
I suggest a small test. Ask the question, “Why do they say bottled water is safer?” If the answer doesn’t make sense, then you ask, “If it’s not safer than tap, why am I drinking it?” Take this test and maybe you’ll make bottled water producers fear for the safety of their jobs.