By Ray Latif
During a meeting the other day, Anne Swan noticed that the woman sitting next to her was drinking water from a sleek, glass bottle.
A few women across the table were drinking water from plastic bottles.
Swan knows branding. She’s the global creative director at Siegel+Gale, an international identity and branding firm that champions simplicity. Still, she couldn’t help but feel like the water from the glass bottle must be more refreshing.
The bottle was made by Voss, currently the fastest-rising premium water in the country. Swan, it seems, felt the pull. Swan asked the woman where she got the water—she wanted a bottle of her own.
Lacking the vast financial resources and distribution muscle of mega companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, premium water companies must compete on a different level. They’ll advertise the exotic source, the high mineral content, the environmental sustainability. More recently, some water marketers have begun to boast about the high alkaline content in their products, a claim that has resonated with a growing number of heath-focused consumers.
However, it’s been proven time and time again that in blind taste tests, under equal conditions, the average person – or even the expert — is rarely able to distinguish between tap water and bottled water. So if taste isn’t why consumers are drawn to high-end water brands, what is it? Like a fancy car, it’s the packaging, and not what’s under the hood (or bottle cap), which most people crave.
In the $10 billion plus world of bottled water, branding is everything. And for premium waters, everything begins with the bottle.
“The design is creating desire,” said Paula Grant, the founding partner of Flood Creative, a design agency based in Nyack, N.Y. “If it was just utilitarian, everyone would be drinking Dasani.”
Although brand owners have long centered marketing on the native or spring sourcing of their water, the escalator in suggested retail price, even for those brands that purport to have a superior liquid, nevertheless has to come with a unique and distinguishable bottle. That can work to increase a product’s recognition and underscore its difference from the rest of the field. Even ordinary water in a great bottle can serve as a vehicle to help the consumer see luxury in place of value, again enabling a water marketer to charge a premium price for its product.
“I think that it’s almost a disconnect if it looks too cheap, and you’re charging the amount of money that you’re charging,” Grant said. “At the end of the day, it’s just water, and the category is pretty crowded. Water is water is water. So, what else can you do perk up the product? In stores, people tend to usually turn for structure first, then color.”
So what needs to happen in terms of design? If you aren’t going with a color variation, Grant notes, marketers often focus on the shape and design of the bottle –and less so on the label.
“Usually if you’re designing structure, you want the structure to stand out as much as possible, and use very minimal graphics,” Grant said. “[Take] Method (cleaning product) bottles and things like that. There’s really not that much room for graphics – on purpose. You’re supposed to be looking at it like a structure, like a piece of art.”
It is this very notion – packaging as art – that has propelled the growth of many premium water brands. VOSS, for example, broke the mold for premium water packaging with the introduction of its cylindrical glass bottle, one that has since been imitated by several other beverage companies.
VOSS’ bottle is the brainchild of Neil Kraft, the founder of KraftWorks, a creative agency in New York City that has worked with a wide range of consumer brands including Vitaminwater, Adidas, Pop Chips, and Calvin Klein. Nearly eight years ago, VOSS approached Kraft with the goal of launching an advertising campaign that would position the brand as a premier luxury bottled water.
First, Kraft told them, they needed a new bottle. According to Kraft, VOSS was using a rather ordinary beverage bottle at the time, and in order to achieve iconic positioning, it needed an iconic package. Kraft said he saw an opportunity to redefine how luxury could be communicated in the category and drew on elements of shape and style from high-end fashion and cosmetics brands. The result was an elegant, if drastic, departure from the norm: a single-shaped bottle with no edges and a large, screw-top cap. The problem was that VOSS couldn’t find anyone to actually produce the bottle – it took a rigorous year-long process to finally find a manufacturer in Ireland to produce the new bottles.
“There’s only been a couple times in my life when people said ‘go ahead and break all the rules,’” Kraft said. “That’s when things are really successful – when they’re willing to break rules. They were unbelievably persistent in terms of getting someone to make [the bottle].”
Like VOSS, Icelandic Glacial wanted to separate itself from the bustling throng of premium water brands, each of which have their own story about rare springs from far off places. The company decided that to share its message, the shape of the bottle had to be unique.
“Iceland is a place that most people know about, but nobody knows anything about,” said Icelandic Glacial chairman and co-founder Kristjan Olafsson. “It left us with a blank canvas to create the image of Iceland in the process of trying to communicate what we had here.”
For Olafsson, inspiration came from the vodka world. He noted brands like Crystal Head Vodka as ones that have distinctly separated themselves from others via stand-out packaging.
“If you look at most [bottled water brands] on the shelf, it’s relatively simple bottles that play on the label,” Olafsson said. “You get into the vodka world, and you’ve got that skull bottle, you’ve got all sorts of people that are really breaking the boundaries when it comes to shape.”
Olafsson referred to premium bottle shapes as “the handbag theory.” Based on the notion that women want to hold designer handbags more than traditional ones, Olafsson said that premium bottled water has as much to do with the liquid as the need for self-expression.
“It is a lifestyle choice,” Olafsson said. “Basically, if you’re going to be a premium player and really give the quality of the water that [you] have justice, you need to have a package that consumers will feel good about holding in their hand. People that want to express themselves with a luxury lifestyle, they’ll express themselves with a luxury water.”
While still a smallish brand, it has kept investors interested and active. In 2007, Icelandic Glacial gained a tremendous partner in Anheuser-Busch, which acquired a 20 percent stake in the company (subsequently increased in 2011 to 23.3 percent) and is the master distributor of the brand in the U.S. Two years ago, The Bidvest Group Limited, an industrial investment company based in Johannesburg, South Africa invested $13.5 million in Icelandic Glacial in exchange for 14.49 percent of the company.
The success of these brands is not lost on new and existing companies in the premium water space, many of which are drawing inspiration from the very same products that they are, or will be, competing against. While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, Kraft considers the lack of new ideas to be surprising, especially considering that it’s been proven time and again that originality sells.
“It’s kind of shocking that after all this time, there’s very little out there that’s innovative,” Kraft said.
Certainly, some brands are restricted by the high costs associated with creating a custom bottle. Branding and design firms notwithstanding, unique bottle molds are often priced upwards of $150,000. It’s a common financial reality for many beverage companies, but a critical hurdle for bottled water start-ups. Using a stock PET bottle intensifies the chance that a new brand will simply get lost in the shuffle. However, there are a few companies have picked up on lessons from category forerunners, and identified packaging that, while used to fill alcoholic beverages such as wine and vodka, have rarely, if ever, been utilized to market water in the U.S.
Companies ranging from über-exclusive Bling H2O to environmentally-sensitive RAW Water are served in carafes typically designated for wine, while other brands such as Voda and Naeve have found traction via the frosted “ Bellisima” bottles made famous by Grey Goose vodka.
Yet, regardless of how packaging is sourced, as the high-end water biz continues to grow, it seems likely that bottles will remain the dividing line in an otherwise invisible set of differences.
“In order to convince people to pay an extra buck for water,” Kraft said, “the bottle’s got to be really, really special.”
Staff Writer Max Rothman contributed to this story.