The business has been built in large part on savvy marketing, aimed at convincing consumers that not all water is created equal. The pitch seems to have worked.
In the last 30 years, bottled water has emerged from virtually nothing to become the No. 2 beverage in the United States, behind soft drinks. If its current growth patterns hold, bottled water will pass soft drinks in the next 10 to 15 years, said Gary A. Hemphill, spokesman for the Beverage Marketing Corp., a research and consulting firm.
While the bottled water industry's revenue has grown by almost 800 percent in the last 20 years, so has competition. Hundreds of brands large and small now fight for consumers' loyalty and attention. The branding of bottled water has relied almost exclusively on the perception that it is purer and healthier than tap water. Brands such as Crystal Geyser and Arrowhead use images of snow-capped mountains to promote their products. A key part of Coke's marketing strategy for its Dasani water, the No. 2 bottled water in the country, was to create a recognizable brand by inventing a name that sounds refreshing and designing a stylish cool blue bottle.
Still, real questions remain about the difference between tap and bottled water. Some critics say there is no evidence that bottled water is any better than tap water and that regulations are actually more lax for the bottled water industry.
But its perceived purity alone doesn't sway consumers. Bottled water has also evolved into a status symbol, and there are plenty of brands designed to tap into consumers' snob appeal, such as Voss and Fiji Water, which promise premium water at an equally premium price.
Snob appeal is what launched the bottled water industry, said Arthur von Wiesenberger, an industry consultant and author of four books on bottled water. In the mid-1970s, Perrier hit a nerve with yuppies, who decided that French sparkling water in a green glass bottle was a must-have beverage. For the first time, Perrier demonstrated that U.S. consumers in the United States would actually pay for water.
"It really became an image thing," he said. "It was the birth of the bottled water boom."
Perrier begat Evian, which became the must-have water of the late '80s and early '90s. Recognizing a growth industry, PepsiCo and Coke launched their own brands, Aquafina and Dasani, in the mid-1990s. The business also made sense to the large beverage companies, as industry analysts have estimated that bottled water businesses score profit margins of 25 percent to 30 percent. According to von Wiesenberger, profit margins can range from 15 percent to 100 percent, depending on the type of bottled water. Something that has to be shipped from Fiji has a lower profit margin than a product that is just purified tap water.
With the entrance of national brands, the highly fragmented and regional bottled water industry became mainstream, as did the perception that bottled water was significantly better than water from the kitchen sink. The relatively recent emphasis on health is what really has transformed the bottled water from a niche market to a mainstream product, especially in the individual bottle market, Hemphill said.
"Health and wellness has been a big driver for the bottled water business," he said. "People perceive it as a more healthy choice." Still, there are many skeptics of the benefits of bottled water. An examination by the National Resources Defense Council in 1999 found that bottled water is not necessarily cleaner or safer than tap water. While the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water, considering it a packaged product, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water, or water that comes from a municipal sources. The NRDC found that the FDA's...