4.22.2013

What Bottled Water Can Teach You About Marketing


Nowhere is the power of branding and marketing as clear as it is in the bottled water industry. Despite virtually zero product differentiation, bottled water has become a billion dollar business with a wide range of prices, many distinct brands and strong brand loyalty. Brands like smartwater, Fiji, Voss, and plenty others have effectively found a niche within an undifferentiated market.

This industry represents a microcosm of virtually every other market. Without any product differentiation, these companies have come to rely on branding as the only way to stand out. It is the ultimate test of branding, illustrating how powerful marketing and branding can be to influence consumer behavior.


If you understand what has made these water companies so successful, you can apply the same marketing concepts to your own product. First, you need to create demand. Not that long ago, the idea of paying for water would have sounded absurd. Water is a commodity freely available from any faucet, yet some savvy marketers managed to create a demand for this product and over time have developed this demand into a need. Now it has become taboo to drink water straight from the faucet.

The evolution of this market is similar to the way Listerine pioneered the mouthwash industry. The company started marketing its product in the 1920s as a cure for "chronic halitosis", an obscure term for bad breath. Before this ad campaign, bad breath had never been considered a cause for concern; now oral care is a multi-billion dollar industry. In both instances, savvy marketing effectively created a market out of thin air. Find a problem that your product solves, even if it isn't much of a day to day concern for most people, and focus on the positive result, whether it provides convenience, improved productivity, better health, more pleasure, etc.

Ever since the market for bottled water was successfully created, branding has been a central aspect of the industry. First, there were variations of "spring water" and "purified water". Then, more savvy companies went beyond those standard distinctions to boast their "vapor distilled" (smartwater) or "artesian water" (Fiji & Voss), each sounding more exotic (and ridiculous) than the last. Consumers have flocked to these trendy water brands, the shape of someone's water bottle becoming something of a status symbol.

Hopefully your product's differentiator is more tangible than these examples, but even if not, you can follow their lead to make yourself stand out. The key is to find something (anything) that you can promote as being unique to your brand. If you're product or service is virtually undifferentiated from the competition, then pick any characteristic of your product and herald the benefits of this particular attribute. Consumers will begin to associate your brand with these benefits, even if the attribute is something common in your industry (think about how Coors Light highlights how "cold" their beer is). It is all how you present and own these benefits in order to align them with your brand.