Basic Instinct: Why More Premium Water Brands Are Going Alkaline

The premium water market is currently exploding, and alkaline water helped provide the spark.

Modern grocery cooler sets are increasingly populated by the relatively new phenomenon of functional waters, with products offering added value such as caffeine, antioxidants, probiotics, CBD, fiber and more. But the concept of a “functional” subset for the water category has been largely validated by the success of alkaline water, the general term used for packaged water with a pH of over 7.

Companies such as Essentia, CORE and AQUAhydrate have helped establish alkalinity as a major growth driver for premium water, using it as a vehicle to move beyond natural retailers and into conventional and mass channels. Meanwhile, brands like Flow, Eternal and Icelandic Glacial are positioning themselves as the next generation of alkaline waters by emphasizing natural sourcing and environmental responsibility. Even The Coca-Cola Company recently launched an alkaline SKU under its smartwater brand, a big company move which could provide further growth – and disruption – for the category.

As alkaline water continues to grow at a healthy clip, what that market may look like in the next several years nevertheless remains unclear. As legacy brands evolve and new ones emerge, consumers’ understanding of alkalinity as both a functional component and a connotation of premium quality in water is changing as well.

DRIVING A THRIVING MARKET

The runaway growth of bottled water has been a major story in beverage for the last decade, during which alkaline waters have helped create a new space for enhanced products. Even as more cutting edge functional offerings have emerged in the segment, alkalinity remains a growth driver across most retail channels.

According to data from market research group SPINS, the U.S. shelf-stable water category grew 7.8 percent over the past year, reaching $13.2 billion. Dollar increases were relatively consistent across channels; conventional multi-outlet grew 7.8 percent, followed by 7.7 percent in the natural channel. The specialty gourmet channel grew 5.1 percent, but, at $217.2 million, has a larger share of the space than natural.

Enhanced waters represent around $2.1 billion of that $13.2 billion market, but the segment is growing at a faster rate. According to SPINS, enhanced waters – which include nutrient, electrolyte, alkaline and oxygenated waters – grew 12.9 percent over the past year in the U.S. Of those, alkaline water posted the second-largest increase in sales, growing 37.5 percent to approximately $252.6 million.

Broken down further, alkaline waters are enjoying the fastest growth in the conventional multi-outlet channel, where U.S. dollars increased 51.6 percent last year to $198.5 million. The specialty gourmet channel, representing approximately $12.3 million of the total category value, grew by 14.4 percent. Alkaline waters saw a small drop of 0.4 percent in the natural channel last year, according to SPINS data.

For larger brands seeking to play in the premium water market, alkalinity and callouts to pH levels can be a relatively simple way to enter the category. Last year, following the departure of premium water brand Fiji from its distribution portfolio, Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP) paid $525 million to acquire CORE Nutrition. With its signature bottle design and the backing of a slew of celebrity investors, the brand’s flagship product, CORE Hydration, which markets itself as having a “perfect pH” of 7.4, had been a part of the KDP’s allied brands roster since 2016. Meanwhile, PepsiCo’s venture into premium water, LIFE WTR, notes that the water is “pH balanced” on its front label. According to IRI, the brand recorded dollar sales in excess of $225 million last year, growing 12.6 percent.

With CORE’s acquisition, one of the alkaline category’s earliest names now stands as both a category leader and its largest remaining independent company. Essentia, founded by Ken Uptain in 1998, grew over 59 percent in 2018, capturing an 8.3 percent share of the premium water category, according to the company. Rumors about a potential sale have swirled around the company over the past year; last June, CNBC reported that Nestle, Danone, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch InBev were all exploring bids at a valuation in excess of $500 million. While Essentia has an ongoing relationship with investment bank Credit Suisse, the company has denied that any official sales process is underway.

Instead, Uptain told BevNET the company is seeking to continue the steady strong growth numbers it has enjoyed in recent years. He said Essentia generated approximately $208 million in measured retail sales in Period #2 of 2019, which is calculated as a combination of data from IRI, SPINS and Whole Foods. With a national DSD structure in place to serve nearly 90,000 retailers, the brand is looking to translate its momentum from the natural and mass channels into c-stores and drug stores.

“At the end of the day, we own the alkaline water category; we have a 53 percent market share and we are 68 percent of the category growth,” he said, noting that the company has added 20,000 points of distribution so far this year. “On a sales per point basis, Essentia is number one premium water brand for food and drug. We are now number two premium brand sales-per-point in c-stores and number one in natural. Wherever we are going, it’s resonating.”

SMARTWATER GOES ALKALINE

In launching an alkaline (9+ pH) water SKU this spring, smartwater, already a leader in the premium water segment, is looking to extend its reach into new areas of the category.

Initially unveiled at the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) trade show last fall, smartwater alkaline will arrive in stores this spring in 1 liter PET bottles. Luke Beatty, director of marketing strategy and portfolio commercialization for smartwater, said in an email that the launch is designed to offer consumers “more of what they want from a brand they love and trust.” The move also gives smartwater a clear distinction between Coke’s other water brand, Dasani, which brought in over $1 billion in U.S. dollar sales last year, according to Nielsen.

“With the introductions of smartwater alkaline and antioxidant, smartwater became the only premium water brand offering sparkling, alkaline, antioxidant varieties plus a pH balanced still product,” wrote Beatty.

As Beatty noted, adding an alkaline SKU is part of Coke’s overall effort to position smartwater within different use occasions, consumer demographics and purported functionalities. The company does not make any health claims related to alkalinity, though; according to Beatty, “we are communicating that hydration is important to help keep you at your best.” Marketing copy around smartwater alkaline positions the product “for daily fitness.”

“Over the past two years, the alkaline segment has grown by 171 percent – but awareness of the segment is still relatively low, pointing to more growth opportunity ahead,” wrote Beatty.

NATURAL ALKALINE RISING

Natural spring and reverse osmosis water have long competed for market share in the bottled water category. Within that segment, a handful of naturally alkaline water brands are hoping to disrupt a space dominated by processed products.

Since founding Eternal Beverages in 2006, Karim Mashouf has worked to establish natural alkaline waters as a distinctive and, in his view, superior alternative to processed alkaline products. Eternal Water is sourced from multiple springs in the U.S. and is marketed as having a natural pH of 8.0. By emphasizing how the product has been untreated or processed in any way, Mashouf said he sees the brand competing with premium natural imports like Voss, Fiji and Evian, rather than against strictly alkaline brands.

“Filtered tap water with minerals added back in is not a good thing,” he said. “I relate it to the days where companies like Gerber and Johnson & Johnson and others convinced mothers here in the U.S. that their breast milk was inferior and that they could create something superior out of science. And I think it’s obvious with the whole natural food revolution that humans are seeing that that is not the case.”

Icelandic Glacial, which is also naturally alkaline, is also preparing to unveil new consumer communications in April that CEO Reza Mirza said will “go heavy on calling out that we are alkaline by nature and not from a factory.” While acknowledging that a significant number of consumers don’t care about natural versus processed alkaline water, he said having a clean ingredient panel provides an instant point of difference for Icelandic.

“Consumers right now look at numbers like 9, 9.5, 8.4 – for them, it’s just numbers,” he said. “The moment you tell them to look at the label on some of these other brands, the ingredient list reads like it is sodium bicarbonate, where as ours is alkaline by nature. We want to go heavy and hard on that point.”

Yet even within this segment, the purity and sourcing of water appears to have overtaken alkalinity as a major call out for brands. Both Eternal and Icelandic Glacial have introduced non-alkaline sparkling water lines, for example.

“The fact that we are naturally alkaline is definitely part of our messaging – it’s not who we are, but it’s part of it,” Mashouf said.

Canadian brand Flow Water has been actively growing its U.S. presence since entering the market in 2015. Leveraging its natural spring source, which contains electrolytes and minerals and has a pH of 8.3, the company has built its identity around health, wellness and environmental sustainability. Founder and CEO Nicholas Reichenbach said the brand’s introduction of fruit flavored essence waters in 2017 was aimed at capturing “sophisticated detox flavors, like you see at spas and hotels.”

At Natural Products Expo West 2018 in March, the company doubled down on that positioning with the announcement of a partnership with actress Gwenyth Paltrow’s influential health and wellness company Goop. Product was available at Goop’s “In Goop Health” summits in New York on March 9, and will also be part of a second event in Los Angeles scheduled to take place in May. Flow will also be served at Goop’s two retail stores (dubbed “labs”) in New York and Brentwood, Calif. this summer. Reichenbach said the affiliation makes sense for the brand, for which 75 percent of consumers are females aged 34 to 41. Taking that even further, Flow announced a new “daily beauty” functional line, called Glow, in late 2018. The product, slated for launch this year, infuses the brand’s alkaline spring water with botanicals and antioxidants, as well as CBD.

BEYOND ALKALINE

Even as alkaline water continues to grow as a category, it is still just one element fueling the overall momentum behind functional waters as a whole. In that climate, some brands are seeking to deemphasize call outs to pH and alkalinity in favor of broader functional and healthy lifestyle claims.

In the category’s early stages, alkaline water, like bottled water in general, was presented as a healthier alternative to public tap water. Though scientific evidence is inconclusive as to its benefits, some believe drinking alkaline water to be an effective way to treat conditions caused by an overproduction of acid in the body, such as acidosis or acid reflux. The human body naturally maintains internal pH levels at approximately 7.40 (7 being neutral), but some claim drinking alkaline water can help with chronic issues related to excess acid. Endorsements from influential figures in sports and entertainment, such as Paltrow and NFL quarterback Tom Brady, have helped alkaline water enter the mainstream.