Bottled water is one of those purchases that are very difficult for me to make. I certainly can’t justify purchasing premium bottled water-- whatever that even means. In fact, I often tell my wife Kellen, half-jokingly, that we will never become millionaires because she insists on buying premium water.
Evidently, I’M the weird one because Americans drink more bottled water than any other packaged beverage. But how can the water bottle industry be so dominant given the existence of filtering systems like Brita? And what exactly is premium water anyway? I digress. The point is, the plastic water bottle industry is, in my opinion, the strongest case for the power of branding.
What’s the difference between the water bottles below? In my opinion, it’s not taste (although my wife swears they each taste differently). It’s not even quality; it’s the story they each tell.
From the shape of the water bottle, the design of the label, the language they each use, to the price point they each select, everything is carefully chosen to tell a coherent and compelling story.
For a while, the water bottle industry told the same story across all brands: the purity of bottled water compared to the questionable quality of tap water. But if all bottled water is considered pure, then the various brands are seen as interchangeable commodities. Without relevant differences, customers always choose the cheapest option. And for companies in any industry, it leads to a race to the bottom.
To survive and thrive, companies have to create differentiated value in the minds of consumers. That’s branding.
Smartwater, for example, tells a story about tasty water with health benefits and a unique packaging that turned your water bottle into a fashion accessory-- a statement even. It’s this story of differentiated value that justifies the premium prices that Smartwater is able to charge.
A brand isn’t a product, a logo or a slogan. It’s a story that companies sell us. When that story matches our worldviews, it becomes ours. It becomes an extension and expression of who we are. Something congruent with our beliefs. Something we fight hard to uphold and to protect through every purchase and every recommendation.
Sometimes that story focuses on the functional benefits of the product itself. Other times, the story transcends the products or service, to speak to deeper aspirations— self-expression, belonging or purpose.
It’s the power of these kinds of stories that Nike tells, and that Jayden Smith used when he created Just Water. A story about water that isn’t just good for you, but also for the planet. Those who want to contribute to this cause, saving the planet-- or at least want to be perceived as the kind of people who do-- are more likely to purchase this.
Great companies know that people aren’t willing to pay more for bottled water because they understand that one product costs more to produce than the other, or can even really tell, in absolute terms, the difference in quality among all their options.
Ultimately, those companies know that what we buy is a story about the kinds of people we aspire to be and the kind of world we want to live in. I may not be willing to pay for bottled water-- not even smart water. But just water, now that’s a story I may be willing to buy.