A year ago, sales of bottled water had dried up as shoppers felt the bite of recession, but price promos and meal deals have ended the drought, discovers Claire Murphy

After a catastrophic 2008, when value crashed 9% and volume sales fell 6.7%, the recession appeared to have delivered a hammer blow to the bottled water category: demonised by NGOs, politicians and the media on environmental grounds, the credit crunch provided the perfect excuse to drink tap water, fizzy drinks, any form of refreshment, in fact, except water.

But shoppers have been persuaded to splash out once again on bottled water, with take-home sales rising 1% to £154.8m [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 27 December 2009] and volume increasing 4.8%.

The resurgence has been partly driven by consumers acting on health messages about the value of drinking more water, claims Danone Waters managing director Adam Grant, who adds that a "relatively good summer" last year also boosted sales.

But the most influential factor was price, with figures from market research firm Assosia showing a huge increase in the number of price promotions on bottled water last year (see box, p55). Almost all major brands significantly increased the number of offers they ran. The one exception to this was Vittel, and, sure enough, it saw sales crash 52.2% to £6.2m [IRI 52w/e 23 January 2010] after running fewer promotions than the previous year.

Price was undoubtedly a key reason for the success of Nestlé's Pure Life brand, which was one of the best performers of 2009, with sales of £8.1m [IRI]. This was up from £1.5m the year before, when Pure Life which retails at about £2 for 12 500ml bottles launched in the UK with an initial exclusive distribution deal with Asda. Nestlé trade marketing director Jenny Bond says the combination of a low price and the assurance of the Nestlé brand was particularly attractive to families. She adds that the brand brought new, less well-off buyers into the market.

It has also benefited from Asda's strategy, instigated last year, to reduce the number of brands it stocks. "This made it much easier for consumers to shop the displays," says Bond.

Pure Life is now distributed in 25 countries and, 10 years after its initial launch, is the world's top water brand, it claims.

But price alone was not the only way bottled water brands grew. Highland Spring was able to limit its reliance on standard promotional mechanics by taking part in the popular meal deals that typically offer a sandwich, crisps and a drink for £2 or £3. It had an exclusive distribution deal within Tesco's meal promotions, as well as front-of-store distribution in Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Morrisons in Scotland. This strategy paid off, with volumes up 106% across the year in the impulse sector of the market. Volumes of the brand as a whole climbed a more modest 1.4% [IRI].

Highland Spring is also among the brands that have benefited from shoppers choosing home-grown products over Continental alternatives. It is an interest that has undoubtedly been driven in part by environmental concerns particularly with regards to food miles.

"There has been growth in the past 12 months, with UK-produced bottled water gaining ahead of imported bottled waters," says Jo Jacobius, director of British Bottled Water Producers. "There is continuing enthusiasm for healthy hydration but for the grocery trade and consumers, the significant innovations come largely from the sector's efforts towards greater sustainability," she says.

These include lightweighted packaging and promoting recycling, as well as the natural 'green' benefits of British waters "reduced food miles, known provenance and the fact that these companies act as stewards of the British countryside from which these waters are sourced."

Paul Conron, head of brand marketing at Highland Spring, observes "a definite shift in attitudes in the focus groups I've seen, and within our 2,500-strong quantitative research panel consumers feel that when times are tough they want to support domestic brands."

Nestlé's Buxton brand capitalised on British consumers' desire to support local industries by agreeing an exclusive supply deal with The Co-operative Group. "Buxton fitted perfectly into their strategy of stocking brands with local provenance," says Bond.

But the British badge didn't work for all UK brands. Britvic's Drench which is sourced in Yorkshire failed to build on the strong growth it enjoyed during 2008, when sales rose 66.8%, with 2009 sales falling 11.3% to £4.7m [IRI].

In the meantime, the fastest-growing water brand was actually Isklar, the Norwegian water with an unusally shaped, ice-crystal design bottle. Value sales rose from £186,318 in the 12 months to January 2009 to £2m the following year [IRI]. The brand is marketed to fashionable young city-dwellers last year via a joint promotion with designer Giles Deacon, sampling in fashion stores and by sponsoring The Sunday Times' Style in the City event.

French-sourced Evian and Volvic saw sales fall 5.3% to £97.5m and 4.8% to £67.2m respectively, with Danone claiming its strategy over the past year has been to push for volume growth, backed by price promotions and the Volvic Challenge TV campaign. And the plan appears to have worked, with Volvic selling 104.5 million litres, up 2.4% on the previous year [IRI]. Danone's research also showed that the Volvic Challenge campaign brought a million new households to the brand, one third of which hadn't previously bought bottled water. Evian's volume growth was more modest, with sales up 1.0% to 160.1 million litres [IRI].

Sparkling water, meanwhile, has grown ahead of the overall market this year, rising 3.1% in value and 10.9% in volume [Kantar]. This may be partly due to a long-term trend in shoppers opting to buy carbonated water rather than other fizzy soft drinks; data from the Natural Hydration Council shows that an extra 295 million litres of bottled water were drunk between 2002 and 2008, while consumption of carbonated soft drinks fell by 305 million litres.

Brands that brought something new to the market were among the more notable successes.

As well as Isklar, American enhanced-water brand Glaceau Vitamin Water, marketed in the UK by Coca-Cola Enterprises, was also a big winner in 2009, attracting about £6m in extra sales [IRI]. The brand tapped into the popularity of flavoured waters, the category led by the £48m Volvic Touch of Fruit, but offers consumers a nutritional extra in the form of vitamins.

But despite the success of Glaceau Vitamin Water last year, some in the industry remain sceptical that it will be able to sustain its appeal. "Innovations such as vitamin waters are a flash in the pan and lack mass-market appeal," says Graham Breed, marketing director of Aqua Pura.

"After years of heavy marketing, consumers accept bottled water as purer than pure. To tamper with this goes against the grain and, if products don't live up to consumer expectation, success is likely to be short-lived."

One market development that looks set to stay is initiatives to address the impact of environmental concerns. Manufacturers are continuing their efforts to 'lightweight' bottles by producing packaging that uses less plastic, and Danone Waters aims to be sourcing at least 50% of its plastic from recycled materials by the end of 2010.

Some smaller brands are even centring their marketing around green issues. Belu, primarily available in restaurants, is funding a rubbish collection that will help to clear the River Thames of discarded plastic drink bottles. It is also funding water projects in developing countries.

Growing the market
Looking to the future, many suppliers say the answer to growing the market lies in further educating shoppers about the benefits of bottled water. "Britons [still] don't drink enough water, in general," says Danone's Grant. "Our strategy has been to get more people to drink more water."

UK consumption of bottled water is far below that in the rest of Europe, points out Isklar country manager Deane Ingram so there could be room to grow volume. "Only two-thirds of the UK population buy bottled water at all," he says. "There is a huge opportunity to attract new users into the category with more consumer education on, for example, the mineral content of different brands of bottled waters."

Meanwhile, retailers can help to grow sales by ensuring they stock a range of waters, says Aqua Pura's Breed. "Bottled water has evolved into a lifestyle-driven fixture with consumers choosing products as much on price as for taste, brand or health benefits. It's essential that retailers recognise this by stocking a mix of pack formats and sizes ­specific products for the gym, the handbag, the home, the lunchbox and the desk."

2009 has been a year of two sides for bottled water. While volume growth has been impressive, this has been at the expense of value. The challenge for brands and retailers going forward is to maintain volumes while pumping value back into the category.

As the UK emerges from recession, could this be the moment to act?

Focus On Bottled Water