Is it worth paying more for “premium” bottled water?
That’s the question that analysts at Bernstein set out to answer this week. The trend for “clean living” has seen bottled water become one of the fastest growing parts of the beverage market in recent years, with sales of bottled water in the US growing 5.8% between 2015 and 2016. “Premium” water is the fastest segment, growing a huge 9.1% last year.
Premium brands tend to tout either their rarified origins — the French alps (Evian), a far-flung volcanic island (Fiji) — or their fine-tuned chemistry — full of electrolytes (SmartWater).
Analyst Ali Dibadj and his team at Bernstein write in a note sent to clients on Friday: “The question we pose today is whether or not these differences can in fact be detected by the consumer… to justify the price premiums in the category.
“Is it really worth paying 600% more for premium over value water?”
Fiji bottom, Coca-Cola top
Bernstein held a blind taste test to answer the question, getting 30 people to taste 7 different types of water and then asking them to say which tasted the most “premium” and rank all seven in order of personal preference.
Here’s the water menu they had:
- Fiji: A premium water that sells for $US1.47 in the US and £1.49 in the UK;
- Smartwater: Coca-Cola’s premium water brand. Sells for $US1.16 in the US and 60p in the UK;
- Evian: Danone’s premium water brand. Sells for $US1.02 in the US and 65p in the UK;
- Dasani: Coca-Cola’s standard water brand. Sells for $US0.37 in the US. Not available in the UK;
- Poland Spring: Nestle’s standard water brand. Sells for $US0.25 in the US. Not available in the UK;
- Nice!: The own-brand water of pharmacy chain Walgreens. Sells for $US0.15. Not available in the UK.
The results? Good for Coca-Cola, bad for Fiji and Evian.
The taste testers ranked Fiji — which comes from a volcano in Fiji and bills itself as “artesian water untouched by man” — as the least premium tasting brand. Evian — advertised as naturally pure water from the French alps — was the second least premium tasting. Filtered tap water outranked both.
In terms of preference, the blind testers ranked Evian their least favourite water. Fiji came third from bottom, just better than Nice! The blind taste testers preferred filtered tap water over all three.
Meanwhile, SmartWater and Dasani took the top two spots for both premium taste and preference. Coca-Cola is clearly doing something right when it comes to water.
Sales down to ‘the power of marketing’ not taste
Dibadj and his team write: “Our taste test seems to confirm the success Beverages manufacturers have had in creating massive trade-up within a category, largely through the power of marketing, rather than investing behind differentiated taste profiles.
“For example, Fiji has done a spectacular job, growing last twelve month sales +20% year-on-year (vs. the category at +4%), while commanding one of the highest price premiums, all while ranking the worst from the aspect of taste in our survey.”
Fiji has long marketed itself as an aspiration brand that conveys class and wealth, turning heads in the early 2000s when New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten put it on his menu at $US10 a bottle. Piers Brosnan also gave the brand a boost when he doused his lover with a bottle of the stuff in the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair. (Brosnan became a fan after a stay at exclusive Fiji resort the Wakaya Club, according to Newsweek.)
More recently, Fiji has become synonymous with the Kardashians and fashion weeks around the world. US magazine Mother Jones described it as “the epitome of cool” in 2009 and wrote: “Obama sips it. Paris Hilton loves it. Mary J. Blige won’t sing without it.”
While Bernstein praises Fiji’s stellar marketing job, it warns that this strategy is not without risks. Dibadj and his team say their results show “this category is perhaps less “defendable” and just as quickly as brands have gained traction from consumers, they could just as easily fall out of favour.”
Business Insider contacted The Wonderful Company, which makes Fiji Water, and Danone, which makes Evian, for comment but neither replied in time for our publication deadline.
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