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Bottled water is booming, but what does its popularity mean for water utilities?

Bottled water has risen through the ranks to become a part of our daily lives, despite the top-shelf standards of Australia’s tap water.

recent study by IBISWorld found that Australia’s bottled water industry has grown at a rate of 3% year-on-year since 2012, generating more than $736 million in revenue. What’s behind the meteoric rise of bottled water as the drink du jour?

Sydney Water conducted research to answer this very question. The utility found that perception of water quality is the primary driver for choosing bottled water over tap. The reasons for this association are numerous, but much of it comes down to clever marketing campaigns by bottled water distributors, said Sydney Water Engagement Education and Partnerships Manager Donna Lewis.

“Australia’s bottled water industry has been very successful in leveraging modern marketing tactics to artificially manufacture consumer demand,” she said.

“By telling consumers the safest drinking water comes from a bottle, beverage companies indirectly imply that tap water is unsafe and can’t be trusted.”

Marketing campaigns without a balanced narrative about tap water have allowed bottled water sales to reach new heights. In 2016, worldwide sales surpassed carbonated soft drinks, spurring Beverage Daily to crown bottled water as “the undisputed top player in the beverage market”.

“This news should make all those working in water utilities worried,” said Professor Gay Hawkins, who works at the Institute for Culture and Society and the University of Western Sydney. She has also co-authored the book Plastic Water: The social and material life of bottled water.

“For too long, water authorities have seen bottled water as an irrelevance – as a drink of convenience for those on the move with few impacts on tap water consumption. The rise of bottled water markets disrupts tap water consumption by generating doubts about its source and quality, and promoting individual choice as a more responsible way for consumers to access drinking water,” she said.

How can the water industry change this perception and get consumers back on side?

“Behavioural science tells us that people tend to not look for things that contradict their beliefs; for this reason, it’s vital that we bring to people’s attention the true stories of tap water and bottled water,” said Mike Daniels, founder of Behavioural Architects.

“Changing consumer behaviours and perceptions will require them to believe in the quality of tap water, and to be cognisant of the immense waste of resources, money and environmental impact of bottled water.”

Daniels suggested that tap water suppliers could benefit from re-appropriating the imagery employed by bottled water companies to convey purity and quality.

“There is now an imperative on water utilities around Australia to proactively communicate the quality and safety aspects of their water, which was not necessary a generation ago,” Lewis said.

For example, when Sydney Water educates customers about the safety and quality of its water, the utility no longer uses images and data about infrastructure. Instead, it has taken a page from bottled water marketing and now uses more images that consumers associate with quality, such as frosty glasses and fresh and natural water sources.

Daniels added that if water utilities want to get on the front foot, it’s time they shape the conversation “because right now, bottled water is setting the agenda”.

“We can’t make the mistake of thinking that the job is done if it’s done once,” he said.

“The water industry needs to continuously tell the stories of tap and bottled water as new audiences emerge.”

Lewis, Hawkins and Daniels will be appearing on a panel discussion titled ‘The rise of bottled water: What does it mean for tap water and public water utilities?’ at the upcoming Ozwater’17 conference in Sydney. Online registrations have closed, but you can still register at the event. To learn more and see the full program, click here.

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