Spring’s just around the corner for pre-bottled water

03 February 2020

Spring’s just around the corner for pre-bottled water

At Third Floor we believe we have the power to turn water into wine and why shouldn’t we brand water this way?

The UK’s bottled water market is worth over £3bn and growing. That’s thanks in part to the past few summers being some of the hottest on record. But while growth’s expected to continue, it’s also tipped to slow. It’ll come as no surprise that the catalyst for this sudden change in pace is widely hailed as the ‘Attenborough effect’. The BBC’s Blue Planet II series of documentaries, presented by Sir David Attenborough, shone a harsh light on plastic pollution as one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Watched by 14 million viewers, the series struck a powerful emotional chord and, according to the BBC and retail forecasts, it really has shocked us into changing our habits.  

It’s a strong start. Yet when you consider that 35 billion plastic bottles end up in landfill every year, it’s clear that large-scale and lasting behavioural change are what’s needed to really make a difference. That will take time. They say old habits die hard and this one’s ancient; the first water bottling took place in Holywell, UK almost 400 years ago. The incentive in 1621 of course was sanitation. Water from a well – and a holy one at that – was far safer than any available alternative. Today ,convenience is a major incentive to purchase something we literally have on tap. There’ll always be consumer demand for bottled water in the food-to-go aisles, just as there’ll always be demand for carrier bags at the checkouts.

You might say it’s only right that some responsibility swings to the top; the Government, retailers and the bottled water brands themselves should be leading the charge. But how? Obviously the Government stepped in on carrier bags in 2015 by introducing a new law requiring all supermarkets and large shops to charge 5p for every single-use carrier bag they hand out. Consumer choice was removed. But that’s not a directly comparable example because single-use carrier bags aren’t essential for life. No one is searching for single-use carrier bags on Mars. Or single-use straws, for that matter.

So the choice isn’t going to be taken from us. The alternative of course is taxation, just like the sugar tax imposed on drinks companies in order to crack down on high sugar levels. That cost was passed onto the customer, with a rise in fizzy pop prices. It’s another widely reported reason the bottled water market’s booming, by the way. But look, consumers are still going to pay for sugary drinks because there’s no directly interchangeable option. But start hiking up the price of bottled water, which is already charged at a premium for its convenience, and it smacks of a scam.

Let’s not forget that Coca-Cola came under fire in 2004 with its new bottled water brand, Dasani. The company claimed it was, and I quote, “as pure as water gets” due to a “highly sophisticated purification process”. When it was discovered that it was tap water from a mains supply in Kent, the product was rapidly scrapped, and not without the UK water industry taking huge offence at the Dasani marketing team for implying its tap water wasn’t safe for consumption.

The boundaries between water and soft drinks are now blurring. Drinks giants have spotted this and leapt on a market opportunity. Fruit juice and water blends; herbal concoctions; twigs of rosemary. It’s reached the point where if you can imagine it then someone’s probably done it. It’s soft drinks masquerading on water’s healthy reputation, bearing in mind that consumers will more readily justify the expense of bottled water if it’s clearly better than tap water. There’s no harm in it, but it’s doing nothing to stem the sales of single-use bottles. And so we return to consumer responsibility.

Enter the reusable water bottle, where business is booming. By 2018, the market was already worth $8 billion. It’s now tipped to reach $10 billion by 2024. What’s driving such rapid growth? Of course, eco-consciousness is playing a huge part. But – and this is where it gets really interesting – the reusuable water bottle has also become a curious commodity. Gone are the days you could make do with an underwhelming but perfectly functional sports bottle for a few quid with no egg on your face. Now consumers are willing to pay upwards of £20 for bottle they can take actual pride in, and that’s at the cheap end. The most expensive water bottle on the market right now, the S’Well Water Bottle Set by Smythson of Bond Street, retails at an eye watering £365. To be fair, it does include a smooth calf leather lined sling to flaunt it about in. Brands pimping bottles is an easy way to price hike, and if you can add some smart tech then you’re really onto something.

As an agency that designs brands, Third Floor isn’t about empty status symbols and gizmos. We’re great believers in it being what’s inside that counts. As agencies go, we do take this to a bit of an extreme in that we can’t and won’t allow any one of our clients to get behind a concept that’s nonsense, or misleading, or one we just know will fall flat. Substance is everything. So how does that relate to water bottles? Well let’s work from the outside in, starting with packaging.

The only viable packaging for a new brand of single-use water vessel has to be eco-conscious. We can talk until the cows come home about, “Well, it’s still processed and what’s the carbon footprint of manufacturing the so-called eco-conscious packaging?” It’s a fair point. Let’s remember we’re not talking about the ‘non-water waters’ here. We’re not talking fruit infusions, herbal infusions or any other kind of infusions for that matter (crystal infusions are a thing, we hear). Remember we’re talking just about water. Plain, simple, H2O. How do you justify the inevitable environmental impact of manufacturing that in a single-use container? The answer’s simple. It has to be better than tap water. It has to be superior.

Quirks and gimmicks aside, reusable bottles brands are very valid in charging for great design and materials that will treat your water well. Layered vacuum temperature control that means you’ve always got cold water on the go; rust-resistant steel that cleans well and won’t chemically react with your water; electro-polished interiors that will keep your water tasting great and free from odours. All of these benefits and more are worth the price tag.

But I strongly believe that anyone prepared to fork out on a high-end reusuable water bottle, meticulously designed to keep its contents in the best possible condition, only to fill it with bog standard tap water is, in short, a tool. Fine, tap water’s perfectly safe to drink in the UK and we’re very, very lucky to have it. But if you’ve got the luxury of spending upwards of £50 on a vessel, as many millennials do, then you bloody well ought to care what goes in it.

There’s room for both style and substance. And that, I believe is what the single-use bottled water market’s lacking: high-quality eco-conscious packaging, combined with equally high-quality pure water. Not juice. Not squash. Not processed to within an inch of its elements. Just water. Pure, natural water that’s better for you than any you could source yourself. The best water to fill your smart reusuable bottle with, and the best to buy in single-use when you’re caught short. And let’s face, with the best will in the world even the most diligent reusable converts will be caught short occasionally. Convenience will always be in demand. It’s time that quality caught up. The future for bottled water’s clear and the Roman’s beat us to it. Just. It’s time water found a new spring in its step.