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How marketing can boost reusable bottle use

Drink in this advice for building a lifestyle brand.

Summer has arrived! When it’s hot and you’re thirsty, what do you reach for?

For a lot of Americans, it’s bottled water. In fact, this pretty unassuming commodity has become wildly popular. It’s convenient, it’s a healthy alternative to soft drinks and, to a lot of people, it just tastes better than tap water.

Over the years, orchestrated NGO campaigns and individual social media rants alike have protested the use of natural resources required for bottling water, especially in drought-prone regions, and some have expressed anger over the prolific byproduct of bottled water: plastic that’s often not recycled.

Despite these concerns, National Geographic reports, bottled water sales have grown by leaps and bounds the last two years to total about 1.7 billion half-liter bottles of water sold every week in 2015. Soft drink sales, on the other hand, have been falling. This year, bottled water likely will overtake soft drinks, especially in the aftermath of Flint, Michigan, as consumers in other areas may question the quality of their own tap water.

As author Elizabeth Royte has pointed out, marketing for bottled water has certainly helped pump up sales — it’s been advertised as a lifestyle choice. While I’ve seen awareness campaigns about wasted disposable plastic water bottles crafted in an emotionally compelling way, I’ve never seen the alternative — drinking plain old tap water — given emotional or colorful advertising.

Let’s say you want to promote reusable water bottles that happen to be filled with tap water as a more sustainable alternative to bottled water: A) How would you go about doing that, and B) do you have to be a manufacturer of reusable water bottles to promote that?

B first: No, we think there are some great opportunities for other folks to benefit from promoting reusable bottles. What if you own a convenience store franchise, or even a fast food restaurant? You could give customers a new and just as convenient option along with bottled water — reusable water bottles stamped with your brand. And, to avoid the yuck factor that some consumers (like me) have about refilling water bottles in bathroom sinks or even regular water fountains, you could install a water bottle filling station.

I have an old, bright green CamelBak I tote around with me, and I would be delighted at that option. (I love the water bottle fountains at airports.) On the days I forget my CamelBak, I would be quite willing to buy a refillable bottle at a convenience store as long as it’s a bit cheaper than a name-brand bottle.

Now, back to A: My CamelBak regularly goes hiking and kayaking with me. Not surprisingly, most of the bottle brands I knew of before writing this post are advertised as standard equipment for outdoor adventures or sports. What about everyone else who needs something to drink?

Reusable bottles tend to target niche audiences. So, more bottle brands could target different audiences. And more brands of bottles are expanding the consumer base for bottled water by taking a lifestyle brand approach — reusable bottles aren’t just for athletes and hikers now. This approach hooks people’s interest so they want to use this brand of bottle — which means they’re more likely to remember to wash it and refill it.

Bkr, a "beauty essential that keeps you hydrated," features glam shots of its bottles with a model on its website. Peruse the website for S’well and you’ll see it’s a cool-looking bottle that seems to be primarily aimed at successful yet down-to-earth people, ranging in age from college students to their parents.

Fred, whose water bottles are pocket-sized flasks, nicely sums up the point I’m getting at here about positioning reusable bottles. On their website, it talks about helping people enjoy their lifestyle and do so with more convenience and more responsibility: "We started Fred because we love water, and we want to make it cool and easy for people to drink more water and less of the other junk. We put Fred water in flask-shaped bottles so it can go wherever you go, not to simply freak people out (though we do admit the freaking-people-out thing can be fun). And we designed our bottles to be both refillable and recyclable so they stay in use, not in the ground."

I don’t know of any reusable water bottles that are branded in a more general lifestyle way — targeting any consumers who long for a little more convenience in their lives and would love to be healthy at the same time by drinking tap water out of their reusable bottle. And because convenience and health are big motivators for a whole lot of Americans (we chart the trends in our Eco Pulse study), you’d likely have a huge potential customer base waiting for you if you go in this direction.

So, to sum up

Minus a detail or two, these pointers really apply to almost any product that helps consumers be more sustainable. But to put it in terms of reusable water bottles:

  • Let’s make reusable water bottles more readily available, more convenient to refill on the road and less expensive.
  • Let’s try putting reusable water bottles filled with tap water on a level playing field with bottled water. How? By building a lifestyle brand that focuses on how the product helps the audience live the kind of life they want in a healthier way — and with no extra hassle. Doing so connects the sustainability story of reusable bottles and tap water with a few different big-time emotional drivers.

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