Would you prefer bottled or tap? The rise in popularity of ‘luxury’ bottled water brands seems redundant when access to clean water is free and accessible, and yet the “premium” market is the fastest growing in the North American bottled water industry—itself valued at $18.5 billion. In a blind taste test, luxury bottled water was found by participants to be indistinguishable from tap, with many test subjects ranking tap water above premium brands like Voss and Fiji. So if there’s no difference in taste, why do North Americans continue to purchase and, in some cases, exclusively consume bottled water?
The answer might be in marketing. At the 28th International Berkeley Springs WaterTasting competition, the winning bottle was Frequency H20–an Australian brand which markets their water as being “infused with the sound frequencies of love, the moon, and light spectrums of the rainbow”. According to a study conducted by the University of Waterloo, access to rare and ‘pure’ water has been a symbol of status for centuries—with exclusivity being the main goal. Modern day bottled water marketing plans take the narrative of exclusivity and create consumer needs out of seemingly thin air. This, paired with the increased influence of the wellness industry that pushes certain luxury water brands for their alkalinity or purity, can explain the steady increase in the bottled water industry over the years.
Researchers Sarah Wolfe and Stephanie Cote have another theory. In their recent study, Wolfe and Cote found that there could be a much deeper psychological component to the boom of bottled water: the fear of death. With the rise in news stories related to global warming and ecological issues, bottled water stands as a symbol of purity and health straight from the natural world. Cote and Wolfe argue that the ability to hold that piece of expertly-marketed earth in your hands allows people to feel a sense of control for their own morality. This is further driven by the marketing of brands like Evian, whose slogan is “Evian, drink young”, presenting their product as a sort of solution to ageing through their advertising.
Whether it’s simply excellent marketing or a more psychological reason, bottled water continues to grow as an industry. But popularity is also rising for sustainable and eco-friendly products, which plastic bottles actively work against—so who will win out in the end? Only time will tell.