The triumphal march of mineral water began back in the 1970s with a legendary filmmaker: How clever marketing turned a niche product into a mass phenomenon
Orson Welles is notorious for his 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a drama about extraterrestrials landing in the USA. And he’s famous for his movie Citizen Kane, which can still be found today on every serious list of the top ten films of all time. Nonetheless, most people are not aware that Welles also helped to transform mineral water from a niche product into a mass phenomenon. In the 1970s, this brilliant artist was not doing well financially. He was accepting every job that could earn him a few dollars. That’s why he agreed to do a TV commercial for the French mineral water brand Perrier, which was aiming to expand its foothold in the US beverage market. Perrier sales were lagging far behind expectations. In the mid- 1970s the brand was selling only about 2.5 million bottles a year. Enter Orson Welles. According to The Guardian, his Perrier commercial was “one of the greatest moments in the history of narrative advertising.” Welles’ rich theatrical voice intoned that only nature can create a product like Perrier: so refreshing and “naturally sparkling, from the center of the earth.”
Thanks to this great but impoverished filmmaker, a huge advertising budget of $5 million, and sponsorship of events such as the New York Marathon, by the end of the 1970s Perrier was already selling 75 million bottles a year in the USA. Drinking “the Champagne of table waters” was regarded as chic. Whether in the restaurants of New York City or the clubs of Los Angeles, choosing the right bottled water was suddenly almost as important as selecting the perfect wine. The trend soon reached Europe as well. Companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Danone were starting to realize that water was a product like any other—with the crucial difference that the profit margins for water were far higher. Water could be sold in massive quantities by running aggressive marketing campaigns by means of commercials, billboards and, to use a contemporary term, influencers—famous men and women who were photographed just as they happened to be holding a bottle of expensive mineral water.In recent decades, no other group of beverages has grown as dynamically worldwide as mineral water. Starting in the 1980s, major food and beverage companies took advantage of this trend, which gained even more momentum through the introduction of the PET bottle. These companies either launched their own brands of mineral water on the market or followed Nestlé’s lead by acquiring existing brands such as Perrier. Today Nestlé, the world’s biggest food corporation, has annual sales of 7.4 billion Swiss francs from mineral water alone.
A tip from the water sommelier Arno Steguweit: “The water should match not your food but your wine”
“Tap water isn’t something you drink for pleasure”
Many well-known mineral water brands are named after their places of origin, such as Evian, Vittel, Volvic, Selters, and Gerolsteiner. These names are associated with athleticism, health, pristine nature, and purity. And if the producers were forced to get their water from another source, they would have to change the name of their product. Consequently, the producers are helping to protect the landscape around their springs.
149 liters per capita
For example, Evian water comes from the surroundings of Évian-les-Bains, a small town in Savoy, Europe’s highest-altitude region. This is also the region that produces Reblochon de Savoie, a famous cheese made of raw cow’s milk. Obviously, cows produce not only milk but also manure. In order to prevent the nitrates in cow manure from contaminating Evian, their premium product, Danone has become proactive and launched the initiative Terragr’Eau. Since the beginning of 2017, the initiative has been operating a center where farmers can bring their manure and have it converted into biogas. In addition, 36,000 tons of organic fertilizer are produced annually, and the nitrates no longer seep into the soil. In 1970 the per capita consumption of medicinal and mineral waters in Germany was 12.5 liters per year. In 1990 that figure had already increased to almost 83 liters, and today it is about 149 liters, according to the Association of German Mineral Springs (VDM). Wibke Spießbach from the VDM believes that German legislation has been an important growth driver for the industry. “Reductions of the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers have benefited mineral water. In 1973 the limit was reduced from 1.5 to 0.8 tenths of a percent, and in 2001 it went down to 0.5 tenths of a percent,” she says. “Mineral water became an accepted drink on social occasions and was no longer associated with self-deprivation.”
Mineral water consumption in the USA also averages out to about 149 liters per capita per year. Last year was the first one in which Americans drank more bottled water than soft drinks such as coke and lemonade. The US market research company Zion predicts that the global mineral water industry will have annual sales of $280 billion in 2020, compared to about $170 million in 2014.
The range of brands is very wide. Discount stores offer mineral water for a few cents per liter, while the brands at premium supermarkets cost a few euros per liter. Consumers can buy water from a spring in their own region, from a Norwegian glacier, or from the Arctic wilderness of Lapland. Water containing vitamin supplements is sold and marketed as a fountain of youth. Water is available in chic plastic bottles, in cans, and even in bejeweled glass flaçons. But whether mineral water comes from the local region or from far away, and no matter whether it costs a lot or a little, it’s always far more expensive than water from the tap. In Germany, tap water costs about 0.2 cents per liter, and in the USA it costs a bit more.
But is mineral water really better than tap water? “No,” says Arno Steguweit, Germany’s first water sommelier, who for many years recommended the appropriate water for each specific wine at the restaurant of the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. “The prices of mineral water don’t correspond to the quality of the product but rather to its origins and its marketing.”
All the same, Steguweit doesn’t drink tap water. “I use it for cooking,” he says. “It isn’t something you drink for pleasure.” The pleasure he refers to is not easy to define. Steguweit points out that because mineral water cannot be smelled or tasted, it has to be felt. “That’s why every evaluation is very subjective. There’s no right or wrong, and there is no one true table water.”
Steguweit has opened his own online business, which sells not only wine but also water, including exotic brands such as one that comes from the Fiji Islands. “I’m a regionalist, but I also like to try out new things,” he says. Variety and choice are important reasons why people drink mineral water. In addition, it’s a source of prestige, because people think it’s something special to drink a rare mineral water from Japan. Another important factor is the health aspect, which many companies emphasize in their marketing campaigns. In an article in the newsmagazine The Week, John Jewell writes that it was “the marketing trick of the century” to convince consumers that mineral water is the healthy alternative to sweetened soft drinks, even though mineral water is actually competing with tap water. This fact was already confirmed in 2000, when the Vice President of PepsiCo at the time, Robert S. Morrison, declared, “Our biggest enemy is tap water.”
Free of charge in restaurants
Incidentally, tap water fills many of the water bottles that are sold under exotic names for high prices. Almost a quarter of the bottled waters on the market are neither mineral, medicinal nor spring water. And good restaurants in countries such as Sweden, France, Italy, and the USA offer tap water free of charge. However, restaurants in Germany are reluctant to dispense with the additional source of income represented by mineral water. Recently the actor Til Schweiger hit the headlines because of an item he offers in his restaurant in Hamburg: tap water called “Barewater – finely filtered drinking water from Hamburg.” It costs €4.20 per liter, a markup of 210,000 percent. Yet another example of brilliant marketing.
Christoph Bauer und Marcus Müntefering