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Creating an international water brand

Over the past five decades demand for bottled water has rocketed exponentially. According to an article by the British Bottled Water Producers Ltd, 20 million litres of bottled water were consumed in the UK each year back in the mid 1970s. Today annual consumption is approaching 2 billion litres. Meanwhile a report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWFN) states that US per capita consumption was just 5.7 litres (the equivalent of 1.2 billion litres) in 1976. Today average intake is well over 80 litres per head (in excess of 24 billion litres). Comparable historic data on a world level is not so easy to come by across such a wide time span but according to the International Bottled Water Association global consumption was just under 110 billion litres in 2000. Today trade estimates put the volume close to 200 billion litres. Category definitions may vary between sources but rapid growth in the market is undeniable.

As the idea of actually buying water in a bottle, as opposed to turning on the tap (or faucet), has flourished so the number of products joining the widening pool of demand have flooded the market. Just in the UK alone there are easily in excess of one hundred individual brands competing for category share from Abbey Well in England, Highland Spring in Scotland, Rocwell in Northern Ireland and Ty Nant in Wales. Competition is not just home grown either a quarter of all bottled water volume in the country is sourced from abroad. International offerings are a confirmed feature of the market.

It has been said that you can’t take water over water but this has not stopped a number of water brands from becoming truly international. Evian, bottled since the 1820s and owned today by the Danone Group, is available in over 150 countries. It sells in excess of a billion litres a year. Perrier, another French brand, but owned by Nestlé, is available in a similar number of markets. It has been bottled since the 1860s. It sold 10 million bottles in 1914 and according to its website today sells almost a billion bottles annually, nearly half outside of France. Even Fiji water (part of Roll Global), which only saw the light of day in 1996, is already available in over 40 countries selling in excess of 10 million cases. It does not seem to matter that to get the water to some of these markets can take weeks (months?). Stale water, it seems, still carries a premium price tag.

So what is the secret behind the international achievements of such brands? One factor is pedigree. Both Evian and Perrier, for example, have been in existence for well over a century, way before the start of the bottled water boom. Evian began life as a health spring, Perrier originated from a Roman spa. Of course Fiji Water lacks such credentials, being less than twenty years old, but heritage is just one aspect of brand success.

Distinctive, premium packaging is another big plus. Ever noticed how most bottled waters come in clear bottles with a blue plastic lid? Perrier’s approach, with a few exceptions, has been far more unique. Its green bottles are reputably based upon the shape of Indian exercise clubs and are instantly recognisable, even the newer PET options added in 2001 and designed for consumers with a “get up and go” lifestyle. Fiji Water has also adopted PET but in a fairly distinctive square bottle shape which also conveniently aids transportation. Evian is said to be the world’s best selling water but like Fiji Water it has assumed the more standard identity of a bottled water appearing, more often than not, in clear PET (introduced in 1995) with blue screw cap lid. However Evian supplements these with a number of limited edition pack presentations, such as the collectable glass Tear Drop and Origine ice sculpture packs and the 2013 limited edition bottle created by American fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. These are not volume generators, rather premium image re-enforcers.

A major bonus to the development of international brands, and the bottled water industry in general, was the deployment of mass advertising in the 1970s. Perrier was at the forefront of this movement as it took on the massive US market by storm and started the tidal wave of popularity for mineral water in the country. It was around this time that the brand first released its now iconic slogan “Perrier, c’est fou” (Perrier, it’s crazy). Apart from media advertising sponsorships have also played their part. Perrier has sponsored the comedy awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the French Open tennis championship whilst Evian backs Wimbledon and presents the Evian Championship women’s professional golf tournament in France.

But, when all is said and done, none of the above mentioned attributes are unique to international trademarks. Many localized brands offer heritage, such as the UK’s Malvern Water (renamed Holywell Malvern Spring Water following a change of ownership last year) which was first commercially bottled in the middle of the 19th century. And it is not just international brands that adopt designer bottles or labels, as in the respective cases of Antipodes New Zealand spring water and Mount Franklin semi sparkling water in Australia. Similarly domestic brands are just as likely to engage in sponsorships as international offerings. Buxton Natural Mineral Water in the UK, for example, supports the England cricket teams and most brands advertise where this is viable.

So what actually underlines the success of an international brand? Obviously the backing of a major multinational helps financially but more than money is required. A globally consistent brand identity is a given essential to retain product familiarity. Coupled with this is effective distribution and a unified, consistent marketing approach across borders, though obviously flexibility is necessary to reflect localized features and conditions. But most important of all is to engage with the consumer to create and maintain brand loyalty for, when all is said and done, the market is consumer-driven.

Written by Ray Rowlands of Drinksinfo Ltd with over 30 years experience in researching the international beverage market. Available for market research, feature writing and related projects

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