The end of designer water?

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The growth of bottled water consumption has been one of the great success stories of the last 25 years. Brands like Ty Nant, Evian, VOSS and FIJI have become design icons, served in boutique hotels and top restaurants across the world. The bottles took their inspiration from the world of cosmetics and fashion; many deliberately over-designed to achieve maximum attention at the dining table or poolside. It seemed the designs had skipped a phase and were intended for collectors and museums, rather than the end consumer!

So, perhaps now its time to get back to basics? When it comes to bottled waters in 2018, customers have become more sophisticated and want something else. Its not enough just to be a glamourous luxury product. Now we want a brand that reflects our values, has authenticity, exudes personality, incorporates sustainability, and perhaps doesn't even look like a brand as we know it in the traditional sense.

Bottled water faces increasing criticism, especially because of pollution caused by discarded PET bottles. The BBC's Blue Planet series focused attention on the issue and has forced bottled water producers to act. Fortunately, aluminium cans and plant-based carton packaging are starting to offer sustainable alternatives for the "on-the-go consumer", however glass remains the only sustainable option for hotels, restaurants and cafes. This doesn't mean bottled water in glass is without criticism, as many consumers tend to view all bottled waters as the same; regardless of the type of packaging.

These changes in consumer expectations are an opportunity for water producers to re-think glass bottle packaging and perhaps find inspiration in the origins of bottled waters. For too long now, brand innovation and differentiation has meant exotic bottle designs and an over use of words like "pure", "pristine" and "natural", which inevitably leads to more cynicism from consumers. 

In the 19th century, when mineral waters were first bottled in Europe, simple "Vichy" style glass bottles were used; many sealed with a simple crown closure. The finished product was packed in wooden crates and shipped to customers. There was beauty in these ordinary bottles and their paper labels were often works of art, evoking the unique origins of the water source. Unfortunately, In the rush to differentiate and innovate, many producers chose to modernise their brand with eye-catching bottles and extravagant branding.

In contrast, wine makers have continued to use the same, classic Bordeaux, Burgundy and Reisling style bottles. These bottle designs are functional, elegant and help to reinforce the quality perception of the product. Wines rely much more on their label artwork, tradition and story-telling to connect with consumers. All of this goes to underline the authenticity, flavours, aromas and subtle textures of wines.

The world doesn't need more designer waters! Bottled water producers would do well to learn lessons from the world of wine and stop trying to be the protagonist on the restaurant table. To be taken seriously, the focus needs to be on good storytelling, making convincing arguments why waters deserve to be both valued and enjoyed. Fine waters discreetly enhance the enjoyment of fine food and wine - hydrating and cleansing the palete - but the true heroes are always the wine and the food, not the bottled water.

As the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said: "Less is more". Bottled waters need to adapt to a rapidly changing changing market if they are to remain relevant and avoid even more criticism.