Tapping into water branding

Getting people back on to tap water might not be easy – even though many bottled waters contain just that

Branding tap water may strike you as a pointless waste of resources, but one man with an environmental conscience believes doing so could wean consumers off mineral water bottles and back on to the tap.

‘People aren’t buying water, they are buying brands – Evian is an effective marketing invention, so why not market tap water?’ asks Joshua Blackburn, creative director of ethical brand communications and design consultancy Provokateur.

Provokateur has just launched ‘ethical venture’ Tap, which promotes tap water by associating it with mineral water. Tap’s self-designed products consist of a book of stickers marked ‘Naturally still water’, intended to cover the labels of mineral water bottles. The visual identity plays on the T-shape of a faucet, which gushes water droplets. ‘We needed to create a mature brand able to take on established bottled water brands,’ he says. The labels will soon be joined by a branded, refillable plastic water bottle.

Blackburn is aware of the contradiction in creating products to deter consumerism. Tap is managing to dress abstinence up as consumerism – or more cynically, consumerism as abstinence. Blackburn quotes as inspiration Anya Hindmarch’s ‘I’m not a plastic bag’, the design-meets-ethics holdall that enchanted the nation in 2007. It undeniably raised the profile of environmentalism among consumers, but can a small branding consultancy replicate its success? ‘We want to unite brilliant product design and exciting fashion, and are currently trying to get some big design names on board to create products for us,’ says Blackburn, adding ‘I wouldn’t ask Paul Smith to do the technical side of product design, but I might ask him to get involved with creating a Paul Smith bottle.’

Tap’s first bottle is due out this month. ‘It needs to be perfect, desirable and something that you throw into your bag along with your keys, phone and wallet,’ says Blackburn.

Ethical mineral water brand Belu is collaborating with Provokateur on the Tap venture. Belu uses biodegradable corn-starch bottles for its premium product, and donates all profits to charity. Lewis Moberly designed its branding in 2003.

‘We briefed Lewis Moberly to create a premium brand that would not alienate the vast majority of people for whom Green credentials are not the first reason to choose a particular brand,’ says Belu managing director Reed Paget.

Like Tap, Belu finds it tricky to define its position. While Paget broadly condemns mineral water as unethical, he admits to having both feet firmly in the market.

‘We are on both sides – or exactly in the middle,’ says Paget. ‘Ideally, people would drink water from a stream, or failing that a tap, but they often don’t. So instead we are providing mineral water more sustainably than other manufacturers.’

Over the past decade, global drinks brands, including Pepsi and Coca-Cola, have tried to trump mineral waters by creating ‘functional water’ – drinks that claim to boost energy, health and even intelligence.

Pepsi’s V Water, currently poised for a relaunch, competes directly with Coca-Cola’s Glacéau Vitaminwater.

Bought last year by Coca-Cola in the US and launched last month in the UK, Glacéau Vitaminwater claims that its vitamins are as easily absorbed as those naturally occurring in foods. Its tone of voice is friendly and masculine, its branding possessing a clinical edge. The website describes how Glacéau was born eight years ago, a story which features founder J Darius Bikoff necking water and vitamin pills while heading to a New York yoga class.

But Vitaminwater and its stablemate Smartwater, which is not available inthe UK, are reviled by Provokateur’s Tap.

‘Vitaminwater is nonsense,’ says Blackburn, who calls the mineral water industry ‘a case of the emperor’s new clothes’. ‘Vitaminwater makes bold claims about making you faster, smarter and healthier, but this is marketing puff.’

And we are falling for it. The Britvic Soft Drinks Report 2008 revealed that sales of functional water increased 94 per cent in the UK in 2007.

Coca-Cola is quick to disassociate Vitaminwater from mineral water brands. ‘This is not a bottled water, but an enhanced water, which is a totally different category,’ says a Coca-Cola spokeswoman. ‘The consumer rationale for buying our drink is different from that for buying mineral water. Also, we are working with the Carbon Trust to understand the carbon footprint of all Coca-Cola’s products.’

Unlike Blackburn, Paget is reluctant to criticise Coca-Cola.

‘It is pretty risky to get up on a moral high horse – for one thing it invites people to point out your own shortcomings. Also, there is some middle ground here that we can help each other to find,’ he offers.

As the mineral water market diversifies to keep consumers interested, the tap water campaign market appears to be on the verge of flooding. Belu is set to launch a tap water filter jug in restaurants at around the same time as the Evening Standard-backed Water on Tap campaign plans to launch its tap water carafe into London eateries.

Paget is unapologetic about the possibility of duplication or competition between the two initiatives. ‘Maybe it is better to have more than one campaign at a time,’ he says.

If commercial and competitive forces continue to grow among the anti-bottled water contingent, mineral water companies could have a fight on their hands.

For more information on Tap, visit www.wewanttap.com.

It’s all in the bottle

• British consumers drank 41 litres of bottled water per person in 2007, increasing their consumption of bottled water at the fastest rate in Europe over the past five years Source: Datamonitor
• Sales of functional water, which offers added benefits such as vitamins or energy, increased 94 per cent in 2007 Source: Britvic Soft Drinks Report 2008
• A quarter of all bottled water is filtered tap water
• Thames tap water came joint third in a blind tasting of 24 bottled water brands conducted by Decanter magazine in December 2007
• Bottled water is between 240 and 10 000 times more expensive than tap water  Source: Tap

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