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Water is just water is just water, but many people spend an inordinate amounts of time considering which brand they should buy, whether it is still or sparkling and whether it is flavoured or not. Even more bizarre is the fact that they are willing to pay the same price for a 600 millilitre bottle of water that Gold Coast Water charge for 1000 litres of humble tap water. All of this is despite the significant damage to both their wallet and the environment.

The worldwide bottled water market value increased from $64m in 2005 to $80m in 2009 and is expected to grow to $100m by 2014. This rapid increase in bottled water sales in mature markets that have good quality tap water such as in most of Australia raises the question of how has humble water, a homogeneous chemical element, become a multimillion-dollar business? Furthermore how has it eventuated that water can be sold as a differentiated product at distinct price points and then be shipped all around the world?

Apparently it is all about the bottle and the way the bottle is branded. Firstly because bottled water provides a level of perceived convenience that is not enjoyed by tap water. Secondly it is about convenience because we are all too busy to turn on a tap and use a reusable bottle so buying a throwaway bottle of water is easier than carrying around a reusable bottle and refilling it as required. Even more bizarrely for the success in bottled water sales is the combination of branding and packaging. The design of the water bottle communicates desirable values such as health, purity and exoticism with the key factor being the ability of the bottle’s design to symbolically bestow social status upon the person consuming it.

These desirable values of bottled water originated in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries where the unique mineral compositions of springs at water hospitals or spas were used to cure ailments and maintain the health of the wealthy. As a result people began to take these healthy waters home with them due to the development of bottling equipment and machines that could manufacture and fill the bottles.  The symbolism and culture of the spas remains a vital part of the marketing strategy of many brands today. Bottled water packaging lined up on the shelves is a wealth of imagery in service stations, convenience stores, supermarkets and even in drink dispensing machines.  Bottled waters strongest selling points remain mountains, springs, and lakes in shades of blue and white symbolically expressing purity and health.

As more and more brands of water invade the market there has been diversification into the luxury market. Bottle designs have begun imitating the shape of wine bottles and has created a culture of high social status that rivals the wine cellar in many restaurants, hotels and bars with the images of health and luxury being created by the marketing.

Almost universally every scientific study reveals that there is little to no difference in actual health benefits derived from bottled water and tap water. Even more tellingly is the revelation that there is little difference between individual brands of bottled water.  Unfortunately the prevalence and the symbolic power of bottled water marketing is overshadowing scientific findings by appealing to something of great importance to consumers of bottled water and that is their self-identity. Such is the power of the marketing of bottled water that symbolism studies have shown that many people draw on the symbolic values of bottled water to not only create their self-identity, but to decipher the characteristics of other consumers of bottled water. This symbolism has created the illusion that bottled water is more of a fashion accessory than just something to drink when you are thirsty.

The marketing symbolism of bottled water has increasingly come under threat by the even more symbolic environmental image as bottled water has a large environmental footprint due to the cost of manufacturing the bottle and transporting cartons of bottled water all over the world. The major target of environmental criticism is the actual plastic bottle which has an increasingly negative image. This has resulted in a re-design of the bottles to symbolically express environmental friendliness by using alternative materials such as bio-degradable plant based plastics, recyclable cartons and tetra-paks.  Marketing is also using the symbolism of colour to express its new eco-conscience with green now common on bottled water packaging along with messages on the labels about all the wonderful environmentally friendly practices used to manufacture the bottles and bottle the water.

Fortunately the use of environmentally-friendly symbolism to appease the concerns of  consumers about the environment are increasingly failing to convince the symbolically aware consumers who are the main purchasers of bottled water. These consumers have turned their back on bottled water at the same time as government agencies have begun to raise concerns about the cost to the environment when an equal product is already available in everyones tap. Worldwide the trend is for environmentally aware companies  to hand out their own branded bottles which allow for easy refill from any domestic tap. This move in many ways is a tribute to the power of design of the bottle and its perceived convenience.

The reusable water bottle gives these companies the ability to differentiate themselves through water and give it unique appeal though packaging and graphic design. The bottle has given bottled water manufacturers an edge over tap water which can be easily eliminated by consumers beginning to utilise the convenience and symbolic appeal of the bottle combined with the simple convenience of turning on a tap and refilling the bottle.