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Water Wars

I swung into the Shell station after I left the office today. I filled the tank, filed the bankruptcy papers right there in the convenience store, and left in time to make it home for dinner. On the way, I caught a news report that said oil would be selling for $150 a barrel in the next few months: something about a shortage somewhere. Reason weeps. But according to a recently leaked Pentagon study, the liquid gold of the next 20 years will not be oil, it will be water: clean, drinkable water.

The secret report, which is said to have been suppressed by senior officials at the Defense Department, somehow found its way to the international edition of The Observer, Britain’s premier Sunday newspaper. The report details the apocalyptic consequences that could result from severe climate change, including dramatically reduced access to clean drinking water.

But America’s preoccupation with the purity of the water it drinks pre-dates the Pentagon’s new-found fascination with the weatherman. A quarter of a century ago the country’s increasingly toxic municipal water supplies began driving consumers to sources of drinking water that did not come out of a tap reeking of chlorine. The result has been a gushing $10 billion dollar a year market in bottled water in the US alone.

Supermarkets have football-sized isles bordered by towering shelves of self-important brands of water, while health food markets tout everything from the mundane to the oxygenated and vitamin enhanced.

All of which begs the question, how does one compete for shelf space, and more importantly, for a share of the bottled water buyer’s mind, in what has become one of the fiercest marketing wars of the modern age?

Positioning young man. Positioning.

The main event has been between those beverage behemoths – Pepsi and Coke – whose brands, Aquafina and Dasani respectively, are the two top-selling breeds of bottled water in the United States.

Truth be told, these two are positioned almost exclusively by size and marketing clout. With distribution and branding juggernauts that drive their products into every nook and cranny of the known universe, the sales leadership should be no surprise to anyone. What is a bit of a surprise to some, however, is Pepsi’s leadership over it’s long-time, arch-rival, Coke.

Aquafina’s supremacy is not hard to understand: it was the first of the two into the market – Aquafina, ’97, Dasani, ’99 -, and it has maintained that leadership with the help of a much better brand. (Meaning a better name, not necessarily a better product as both are essentially “purified” tap water).

The name Acquafina instantly communicates the concept of fine water. You don’t have to think about it. As surveys show that consumers are concerned about the cleanliness and purity of their drinking water, this name is instantly attractive, a prime requisite of a good brand.

Dasani, on the other hand, means, eh….Anyone?

Even the Mighty Goggle could not answer the question.

I’m guessing that Coke paid several million dollars to have this brand created, yet I would not be surprised to find that many consumers would not even be able to pronounce the word correctly, let alone understand what it means.

At the very least, the fine folks at Coke will wind up spending millions more in advertising dollars than would have been necessary trying to drive this rather Byzantine name into the minds of their public. But then they can afford it.

Then again, this is not the only mistake the Atlanta marketing Mafia has made rolling out this brand. As we have noted, they were late to understand and act on the public’s shift to bottled water as both a source of pure drinking water and as a healthy alternative to sugar-laden sodas and alcoholic beverages.

Dude, who’s doing your research?

And then there was the launch of the product in England, a PR flap so repugnant that it spread across the pond on the digital waves of the Internet and hung in the minds of US consumers I’ve talked to like the foul smell of a passing skunk.

Just weeks after the Dasani launch in England, with brazen Coke executives touting the product, “as pure as bottled water gets,” the company had to recall 500,000 bottles of the water, which was found to contain illegally high levels of bromate, a cancer causing chemical. Tens of millions were lost, the introduction in England was killed and Coke subsequently put plans to bring Dasani to France and Germany on hold. Heads must have rolled like the French nobility on Bastille Day.

But the Water Wars extend far beyond the tap water filtered Coke and Pepsi offerings. There are 700 brands of water competing for the $46 billion dollar global market and just in case you had any question about whether this industry sector had come of age, Rutgers University Press just published Francis H, Chapelle’s Wellsprings: A Natural History of Bottled Water.

All of which returns us to our original question, how to position a new combatant in the bottled water wars. Many use the source of their water to position the brand: Evian, the world’s leader, uses the French Alps extremely effectively to communicate crisp, cold, natural mountain water. Even their bottle has alpine mountain peaks molded into it.

The pure, blue water of FIJI, works a similar magic. This is a terrific example of how two water brands from completely disparate locales creatively position themselves with the source of their water. If Evian begins as “rain and snow falling high in the French Alps,” listen to how water from a warm tropical climate is positioned with the beautiful pacific island from which it comes – graphics to match.

“You don’t have to travel to Fiji to drink FIJI water,” the headline proclaims. “Our water begins as rain, purified by equatorial trade winds after traveling thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. Once it arrives in Fiji, it falls and filters through ancient volcanic rock over hundreds of years. During the process, FIJI Water collects life-essential minerals, like silica and finally gathers in a natural artesian aquifier, where it is preserved and protected from external elements.”

Evocative, vivid copy, which matches the eye-catching graphics of the bottle itself.

California’s Arrowhead Water, uses a positioning similar to Evian’s – mountain spring water from snow capped peaks in both logo and copy: “High in the San Bernadino Mountains of California there exists a natural rock formation…”

But with hundreds of brands, and snow-covered mountains and countless “natural springs” already taken, manufacturers have had to get more creative to find unique positions for their offerings.

With $600 million in sales of its vitamin enhanced waters, Glaceau has done just that. While Penta’s 13 step ultra-enhanced purifying process and Rolls Royce pricing has earned the brand a super-premium position.

Another niche brand, which was recently introduced, seeks to pander to America’s diet obsessed. It’s called, that’s right…Skinny Water. According to a press release, Skinny Water’s “…patent-pending formula features an all natural, clinically tested ingredient, hydroxycitric Acid, plus,” a combination of vitamins, all of which “…play a role in weight control and in promoting normal metabolic function.”

Ehhhh….hydroxycitric Acid?

It’s a clever brand name, but my prediction is that this new entrant will not go to the top of the bottled water hit parade. In fact, I’d be surprised if it even makes the charts. I don’t wish them ill, and I could wrong, but there are a couple of reasons why I say this. First, I would think twice about drinking anything laced with hydroxycitiric acid. Call me peculiar, but I’m not into to the liquid acid scene.

“How can you be so judgmental? You don’t even know what the word means?”

Exactly. Neither does anyone else reading or hearing that release. Sounds too much hydrochloric acid to me. I pass.

But the positioning flaws don’t end there. In addition to promoting their unpronounceable, misunderstood acid, the press release also goes out of it’s way to tell us that it is “ephedra-free” and has been tested by one of the nations “…leading toxicology specialists…”

Excuse me, I must have missed something: why is it again that you had to have the water tested by toxicology specialists? The dark side of the consumer’s mind starts to go to work. Is there something in there – the funky acid, perhaps – that is borderline toxic?

It may be a great product, and if it is and it gets great word of mouth, perhaps it will score. But from a marketing perspective, their PR is going to bury this brand in a casket of hydroxycitiric acid before it gets off the ground.

Added to this is the fact that the label provides no graphic impression, whatsoever. No positioning the brand with good looking, hard bodied babes, or sexy thirty-something guys with infomercial abs and big smiles dripping with sweat jugging a bottle of the stuff. The label is non-descript. There is no image, no visual communication whatsoever.

Someone needs to tell their marketing people that it is a visual world today.

If the packaging of Skinny Water is an offering to the Gods of marketing miss-steps, the creators of Liquid Salvation, have done the opposite. They have made the package itself the position of their new natural spring water. The package is the position.


That’s right. Liquid Salvation is the first bottled water in a flask. The container, fashioned from the flasks used by World War II flight pilots instantly positions the brand with an earlier, slightly naughty era. The irreverent ‘40s style bottle fits conveniently in the pocket and has picked up a fashionista client base with some of Hollywood’s bad-boy leading men, including Mickey Rouke and Owen Wilson.

With evocative retro graphics, the Liquid Salvation label sports either a sexy she devil or a Betty Grable like seductress with one of the flasks strapped to her upper thigh behind a red garter. “Pure Water for an impure world.”

Yeah, Baby.

This brand is rapidly carving a niche for itself out of the hide of its stodgy competitors. Liquid Salvation is the product of former world-class athlete and stuntman, Chris Warner, who says, “We’re taking a medieval approach to the beverage industry – town to town, village to village with our battle cry, ‘Ask for the Flask.’”

This guy knows how to create a position and communicate it.

Creating a memorable position in a market this populated and competitive is a test of marketing genius, but it can be greatly aided by naming and positioning surveys, something On Target has specialized in for twenty years. If you are looking to roll out a new product, or reposition an old one, our unique positioning and naming surveys can help you do that with both panache and flair.

Our contact information is directly below and you are but a click or phone call away from world class customer insight.

See you next issue.