The Cult of Bottled Water

How the business of bottled water went mad


The global bottled water industry is in one of those strange and energetic boom phases where every week, it seems, a new product finds its way on to the shelves. Not just another bland still or sparkling, but some entirely new definition of the element. It is a case of capitalism at its most hyperactive and brazenly inventive: take a freely available substance, dress it up in countless different costumes and then sell it as something new and capable of transforming body, mind, soul. Water is no longer simply water – it has become a commercial blank slate, a word on to which any possible ingredient or fantastical, life-enhancing promise can be attached.

And it’s working. Over the past two decades, bottled water has become the fastest-growing drinks market in the world. The global market was valued at $157bn in 2013, and is expected to reach $280bn by 2020.

... Of water: a substance that, in developed countries, can be drunk for free from a tap without fear of contracting cholera.

...or a substance that falls out of the sky and springs from the earth of its own accord, water has always had an extraordinary commercial lure.

According to James Salzman, the author of Drinking Water: A History, monks at holy wells produced special water flasks for pilgrims to take away as proof of their visit – a medieval example of the power of branding. For centuries, wealthy Europeans travelled to spa towns to sample the water in a bid to cure specific ailments. The spa visit was a signal of health, but also of status: somewhere to be seen, an association of liquid and individual that broadcasted social elevation – a distant precursor to Kim Kardashian clutching a bottle of Fiji, if you like.

In 1740, the first commercial British bottled water was launched in Harrogate. By 1914 Harrogate Spring was, according to its website, the largest exporter of bottled water in the country, “proudly keeping the troops hydrated from England to Bombay”.

In the early 20th century, however, a water revolution nearly killed the nascent business. After early attempts in Germany and Belgium to chlorinate municipal drinking water, a typhoid epidemic in Lincoln in 1905 prompted the public health crusader Alexander Cruickshank Houston to try out the first extended chlorination of a public water supply. His experiment worked, and soon, chlorination of municipal water had spread around the world. In 1908, Jersey City became the first US city to use full-scale water chlorination, and the practice quickly spread across the country.

The bottled water industry almost collapsed as a result. In the past, buying clean water had been a necessity for the rich (the poor simply endured centuries of bad drinking water, and often died from the experience). Now it was freely available to all. Why would you continue to spend money on something that now came, miraculously, out of a tap in your kitchen?

The answer arrived in 1977, in the form of what must be one of history’s greatest pieces of television advertising narration. “Deep below the plains of southern France,” rumbled Orson Welles in a voice that sounded as if it were bubbling up from some unreachable subterranean cave, “in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, Nature herself adds life to the icy waters of a single spring: Perrier.” As viewers watched the water descend into a glass, and admired the glistening green bottle, marketing history was made. The advert was part of a $5m campaign across America – the largest ever for a bottled water – and proved a major success. From 1975 to 1978, Perrier sales in the US increased from 2.5m bottles to more than 75m bottles.
Comment: CanO advertisement above is a screen snap of their website. We bottle our own (from our own tap) using Klean Kanteens.  See Minneapolis: Our water beats bottled water, In Praise of Tap Water; Bottled Tap Water

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