Water, Water Everywhere …

Imagine the following

You’re out shopping, you become thirsty, you have no water with you and you are nowhere near home. What do you do…?

You go and buy a bottle of water, right? And you’re not alone…

In 2010, the UK consumed 2055 million litres of bottled water (UK Soft Drinks Report, 2011). But why? Here in the UK we all have access to fresh, running, drinkable water in our homes 24 hours a day.

The average house in England and Wales spends approximately £376 a year on water. That’s just over £1 a day. What’s interesting here is that people are not willing to pay a penny more for this utility. In April this year water bills in England and Wales rose by 5.7% (BBC News, 2012), this was met with a wave (great pun) of annoyance by the general public (including my Dad, who went ape s**t).

But despite the fact that we have access to running water and that people begrudge paying for tap water they seem completely unfazed by paying £1 (or even a lot more) for a 500ml bottle of water. In fact you can actually pay 2,000 times more for a bottle of water than the water you get from your tap (Fishman, 2011).

So why do we do it?

Well one of the reasons has already been alluded to in my story at the beginning – convenience. Not everyone is organised enough to take a bottle of water with them when they leave the house. Even if you are organised there still may be the odd occasion where you simply forget to take water with you.

But this isn’t the only reason. Bottled water has become such an incredibly profitable industry (Americans actually now drink more bottled water than milk or beer (Gleick, 2010)) because the demand for it has been manufactured.

How has the demand been manufactured?

In the 1970’s, soft drinks companies became worried about their projected profits decreasing (Gleick, 2010). So they came up with a new strategy – sell bottled water. But at this time people were not buying a lot of bottled water – they saw it as unnecessary (I mean it is free from a tap after all!). So they came up with two very clever ways to make people want bottled water:

1. They scared people off tap water.

The soft drinks manufacturers used fear appeals in their advertising to stop people drinking the water from their taps (Rollings, 2012). Fear can be a very effective way of affecting consumer’s behaviour because it makes them feel insecure and scared if they don’t have the product (Snipes, LaTour and Bliss, 1999).

A great example of water companies using fear to put people off tap water is Calistoga Mountain Spring Water (a large American bottled water producer) who released a series of adverts showing a picture of a goldfish in a glass of water. Below this picture was written “There is something in this glass you do not want to drink. And it’s not the fish.” (Gleick, 2010).

The example below shows how Fiji water used a fear appeal to tell the people of Cleveland, America that their water is better than Cleveland tap water.

This actually turned out to be one of the biggest marketing mistakes in recent history. The citizens of Cleveland were so incensed by Fiji’s ‘joke’ that it was decided that a series of water analysis tests should be undertaken. Ironically, these tests actually showed that Cleveland tap water was healthier than Fiji water (Fiji water was found to have traces of arsenic in it!!).

If this isn’t enough evidence for you, in 2000 Robert S. Morrison, the vice chairman of PepsiCo, publicly declared “The biggest enemy is tap water. . . We’re not against water—it just has its place. We think it’s good for irrigation and cooking.” (Gleick, 2010).

2. They made bottled water look like a safer, cleaner, healthier option.

Notice that on each of the labels of these bottles of water there are images of greenery, mountain streams and immaculate nature. Well this is (unsurprisingly) done on purpose. It’s done to make you associate bottled water with pureness and cleanliness. But guess what… loads of bottled water is just tap water!

In fact approximately 40% of all bottled water in the U.S. is filtered tap water (Co-op America, 2001). This includes Aquafina, which is the brand of bottled water produced by PepsiCo – making Robert S. Morrison probably the biggest hypocrite to ever walk mother earth. And it’s no better in this country either. As recently as August of this year it was revealed that both Tesco’s and ASDA’s own brand bottled water was just filtered tap water (Telegraph, 2012).

But if you ignore that and do drink bottled water , look at the incredible effects it could have on you:

So what does this all mean?

It means clever marketing can make people want a product they don’t really need. We hear a lot of these stories (e.g. Listerine inventing halitosis etc.) and the message seems to be remarkably clear – if you scare people enough you can even get them to buy or not buy what you want. The question is, is this ethical? Well, that’s up to you to decide…

As always, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading


About Think Outside The Cliché

I write blogs that try to encourage people to think differently about their purchasing behaviour. I also write blogs that attempt to show companies that there are often other unconventional ways to conduct business. Whether you are a consumer or a business person there will be definitely be something interesting in my blogs for you. I hope you enjoy them and please remember I always, always appreciate constructive feedback.

12 responses to “Water, Water Everywhere …”

  1. bryannosaurusrex says :

    I do not understand why people buy water. With the exception of when the local water source is unclean, as is the case in some places, it is just like flushing money down the toilet. It’s not that difficult to bring a drink with you when you head out to Uni or to one of those ‘Job’ things I have heard so much about recently. I think you raise a great point about people willingness to pay for water. There is such a disconnect somewhere and I can’t quite put my finger on it. As you say, you can pay up to 2,000 times more for bottled water (which is probably just tap water anyway, as you also said) and people are more than willing to dish out the cash in the supermarket for half a litre of water. But when it comes to paying for their own water, plumped directly to their house, they have a hissy fit! I just don’t get it.
    Those dancing babies are surely the spawn of satan.

  2. crystal1014 says :

    I have never been aware that I was tricked by producers of bottled water for so many times! Actually, I always forget to bring water when I leave home, which leads to that I have to buy bottled water on my road. And I never realize I have spent so much money on buying these bottles of water!
    Fear, is quite a wise tool to appeal consumers to buy bottled water instead of drinking tap water. It is found that advertisers invoke fear by identifying the negative results of not using the product or the negative results of engaging in unsafe behavior (Williams, 2011). Under such circumstance, customers may feel be threated and it is more possible for them to buy the product.
    I have to admit that it is quite a good marketing strategy, while is it completely ethical? In the advertisement of Evian, I found that the function of water is exaggerated and it is hard to believe it’s just a bottle of water. Actually, I don’t like those babies either, and I feel uncomfortable when I see this ads. Is this kind of fear and exaggeration ethical? Moreover, you also mentioned that what in some bottles of water is just tap water. Therefore, I don’t think it’s a good thing to use this kind of fear appeal too much in our life.
    Thanks for giving us so much information, and I love your blog!

  3. scienceandspending says :

    As I sit here typing this, I’ve got a bottle of ‘Brecon Carreg’ mineral water beside me. I always buy bottled water and I have to admit I feel slightly duped after reading your post. I don’t think it was any particular marketing campaign that ‘converted’ me to bottled water, I just prefer the taste. Then again, that might be slightly naïve given that research has successfully proven that having additional information can successfully influence our perceptions (eg the Pepsi paradox; Allison & Uhl, 1964 on beer), I have to wonder whether I’d say the same thing if I was subjected to a blind taste test. A literature review by Doria (2006) on the reasons why people might prefer bottled over tap water seems to suggest that bottled water consumption tends to be higher in urban areas and among people who perceive it to be a healthier or purer product. Growing up in London with extremely hard water this rings true… the build-up you get in kettles and even on taps is not a pretty sight. If you can convince consumers they are buying a healthier product than the alternatives (could be bottled water, organic food, whatever), you are more than likely going to find a group of people who will feel that they are getting good value for the product they are paying for, whether that is actually the case or not.

  4. consumer confusion says :

    Well this blog made me rethink alot of things! I have to admit i never really think about how much money i spend on bottled drinks mainly for the reason you mentioned- convenience. The fact that alot of it is filtered tap water i’ve got to say i found pretty shocking, feel a little bit cheated here! Which i guess fits in with the ethics you mentioned at the end. Personally i think if your water is simply filtered tap water it should be stated at least somewhere on the bottle none of that filtered from a mountain beneath a rainbow stuff they add on now! I know they have good reason, after all who would buy water if they knew it was no different to that they get for free, obviously the convenience issue still remains but it would still cause a decrease in sales. However i do think that ‘fear’ advertising should be banned on ethical grounds unless there is scientific research to back up such claims. Fiji water could have saved themselves alot of embarrassment when it backfired!

  5. leannesforster says :

    One thing I think is quite astounding about bottled water is the price differences. I was heading to the gym last week and had no bottles for water and only £0.80 change. A 500ml bottle of water at the gym is £1 and a 750ml bottle is £1.50. I was in trouble I would have to survive without a drink! On my way into the gym I had a thought, I could pop into B+M 2 doors down and grab a bottle. I thought a 500ml bottle would be about 50p so that would be fine. But no. I got to the water aisle and saw a 750ml bottle of water for 39 pence. It was exactly the same water that they had in the gym. Not branded just cheap standard water and there was a price difference of £1.11. The shop is only next door but one!!!!!! But it is all about supply and demand. If someone is going into the gym (and they’re not a broke student) they will pay the £1.50 since its the only option available. Its like that in lots of places- you can’t take drinks through security at the airport, so they charge you an arm and a leg for the pleasure of any drinks. Much in the way that companies will exploit customers by giving them what is essentially bottled tap water, they will exploit them with high prices when there is no choice.

  6. theconsumerbeat says :

    When you talk about tactics used to convince us that we need to buy bottled water, I immediately wonder if it also applied to water filters? It seems that every residential home has a built in water filter, or one that sits on their countertop. Then you just change the filter every few months and, voila! Your ordinary tap water has undergone such a huge change that all of those harmful chemicals have disappeared?? I have to say, water filters are something I’m quite sceptical about. Is Brita water, better water, as the adverts suggest?

    In the 1990’s, Britas main marketing focus was improving the water you drink, making it taste better and making it healthier;

    However, in more recent times, their advertisements seem to focus more on a sustainability concept – if you filter your tap water, you are less likely to buy bottled water, thus helping the environment

    Furthermore, they have launched a water bottle with a filter mechanism in the lid so you can bring your freshly filtered water with you everywhere. Other companies have followed suit, (http://www.waterbobble.com/), but again the marketing towards these products is on a sustainability level rather than the actual ability of the filter to make a significant change in your water. I think it is interesting to note this shift in perception of water filters. Do we even need them or are they another product that we don’t really need?

  7. Declan McClelland says :

    I think there are a lot of cultural issues that affect why people are so willing to pay such extortionate markups on water. Take this for example:

    When I travelled to Hong Kong this summer, I discovered that it is completely acceptable to walk into a McDonalds restaurant and ask for a cup of water. No dirty looks, no invisible social contract suggesting you have to actually order something of value to be eligible to drink some H20. Just a paper cup full of water. Which is handy, because it really hot there. I was hitting up McD’s for water all day long baby!

    Contrast this with an experience I had in the Bell Vue in Bangor last year. I was visiting the pub with friends, who were all drinking. I asked for a cup of tea, and was told that they had no milk, so I asked for a pint of tap water. The wench behind the bar gave me a small glass of water, half filled. I then went back to the bar ten minutes later, and asked again for a pint of water. Again, tiny glass. Two sips and another ten minutes later, on my third visit to the bar, I ask for some water, and get angrily asked “are you actually planning on spending any money here tonight?”… what a bitch!!

    Quite a contrast in attitude I thought….

  8. venividivulgo says :

    I am actually one of the strange people that buys bottled water. But I have to agree with Declan that it’s a cultural thing. Where I am from we drink sparkly water. So all my life, I never drank tap-water, except for at sport matches when I ran out of water or when I was really thirsty. Here in Bangor I therefore carry liter after liter up the hill, just to not dehydrate (how ironic).
    At some point ten years ago, there was this hype about Soda Stream (http://www.sodastream.co.uk). Someone understood us weirdos and invented something that could combine our love for bubbles without carrying the bottles!
    Afterwards one noticed, that often Soda Stream bubbles were more expensive than actual bottled water… And often there were even bacteria, acetaldhyd and less minerals found in bottled water.

    But my preference for sparkly water (and sometimes with lemon flavor) is so strong, I will continue to be risky and expensive. And as long as I don’t make use of Tesco’s delivery service, you will see me several times a week, carrying my sparkly water up the hills of Bangor.

  9. greenConsuming says :

    I also don’t understand why the people keep on buying tap water, it might be a matter of culture or habits. In my opinion it has a lot of disadvantages and no apparent benefit: it is effortful -you have to buy it and carry it back home-, and it is much more expensive, as you guys commented before. Its environmental costs are also very high: it involves petrol extraction for the production of the bottles, energy spent in transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, and tons of plastic for the landfills. So, in my opinion, bottled water has quite many cons balanced with the only pro that I can think about: it could me more tasty.

    • thinkoutsidethecliche says :

      Thanks for your comment.

      You have touched on a really important issue that I didn’t focus on in my blog – the environmental issues regarding bottled water.

      According to Corporate Accountability International the process of making all the plastic bottles for the US bottled water market requires the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil and generates approximately 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. This is in addition to the fact that only 20% of plastic bottles in the US are recyclable which means a hell of a lot of unnecessary rubbish is ending up at landfill (ibid).

      The environmental issues simply add more weight to the argument that bottled water is a waste of time, money and resources.

  10. abp18d says :

    To be honest, I don’t think the bottled water is a necessary daily stuff. It might be convenient to carry in travelling or safety to prevent you from sick in some polluted environment. As we know, the bottled water also has its “use by” date. In some way, as a product in marketing, it will be destroyed if it not be sold at the date. This is not a sustainable way to live. The funny thing is I can read the following sentence on the bottle, “We work hard to reduce our carbon footprint”. It is the same joke like the one on cigarette box, “Smoking damages your health”.

  11. wangxuanjun says :

    Basically, I never bring water with me when I go out for playing or class. I never think about this point, because when I feel thirsty I will just go to buy a soft drink. I never know about that bottled water is the tap water. This behavior is very unethical of those companies. From now on I will try to use less bottled water. It makes me scared.

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