How to Sell Bottled Water During a Drought

I work remotely and everyday at around 1:00 p.m. I usually decide that I can’t stand the sound of my own thoughts and I venture out of my apartment to one of the various coffee shops in Palo Alto to drown my sorrows in obscenely large caffeinated beverages.

I walked to the cafe, ordered my Americano and settled myself down at the end of one of the larger communal tables. This particular coffee shop has two large community tables flanked by ten or so smaller tables. It’s pretty cozy, so I put up with the abysmal wi-fi to work there a few times a week.

It’s fairly common to see and hear people pitching products, having meetings about their startups, and yelling at one another about code. Invariably, I find myself listening in on these conversations. Tuesday was no different.

As I sipped my coffee, I observed the communal table in front of me—two men were sitting surrounded by various coconut water and water bottles. I counted at least seven different kinds of water. Initially, I assumed they were just avid water enthusiasts but I was wrong. These were men in the business of selling water.

One of the gentlemen was what I can only assume was an industry water veteran. He wore a black pullover sweater and dark denim jeans and had the kind of carefree confidence only someone who had been successful in selling water to people who had the stuff running out of their faucets could have. Resting against his left leg was a well-worn leather brief case. He looked like the son of Eugene Levy and Harvey Keitel.

This was a man with answers and the man sitting across from him, wanted those answers, desperately.

Clearly the younger of the two, he wore a navy blue and white striped button-up shirt and dark pants. He was nursing an iced coffee and an orange juice and was an obvious member of the Patrick Batemen hairstyle aficionado club, his blonde hair was slicked back ever so slightly to give the impression of caring, but only just.

The young tech bro had a startup, of course he did. He was the young founder of a sports drink, water that wasn’t just water, it was more than water (though it was mostly just water).

The industry veteran held up two empty containers of water and asked, “Why am I going to choose this water, over this one?”

Ah. The question of the day, how do you successfully market water?

They sat there for a time throwing around the kind of buzzwords that would invoke thirst in a consumer:

“Superior hydration.”

“Natural hydration.”

“Quench, nutritional, hydration.”

Hydration was evidently going to play a big part in this marketing plan.

The startup bro attempted to clarify his target audience, which was described as a: weekend warrior, businessperson, athlete-triathlete, health-conscious progressive with an attention to detail who was both aspirational and locational (meaning they lived in San Francisco).

The water-veteran held up a bottle again, which he did whenever he wanted to make a point, “You want to create a sort of harmony, you have to have a sense of purpose. Water has to be functional.”

Apparently you had to define waters purpose to the consumer, as if the product being “water” didn’t make its purpose clear enough…

The expert then plunged into a discussion about how marketing water wasn’t simply about what was in the bottle, but what was on the bottle. Grabbing an empty bottle for a popular alkalized brand that boasts a pH level of 9.5 he said, “People essentially have no idea how labels work, they think: ‘Oh I need that much fiber or that much protein,’ But they get very confused by it.”

The two went on to discuss how consumers can’t understand Federal Drug Administration guidelines, labels, or nutritional values. This, apparently, meant that you could just throw the word “potassium” on a bottle and people would buy it because they knew they needed potassium, even if they didn’t understand how much or from what source the potassium should be derived.

The young founder made a non-sequitur to discussing their target demographic: triathletes. This was a segment he believed to be grossly underserved by the sports water community (which is a thing that exists).

The veteran unloaded another water bombshell. “You have to have minerals, minerals must be there. Purified water is science, use science to help you, it’s a very technical scientific process and consumers don’t understand that.”

Ah, yet another thing consumers simply can’t understand.

The Eugene-Levy look-a-like raised his voice slightly, “Viscosity, you know what that is?”

This was a rhetorical question because he didn’t give the other man a chance to respond.

“Viscosity, like the fluidity, it’s going to be very big, it’s an emerging trend. What you want to do is establish your baseline viscosity for your post-workout…”

I tuned out at this moment, only to tune back in just in time to hear the three qualities that make up any successful sports water drink: taste, packaging, and functionality. And of course don’t forget the following: “Water should be non-intimidating.”

The conversation had nearly come full circle but the two had still not landed on a good catch phrase.

The young graduate went on to discuss their sports water drink being a good source of fiber. No! A superior source of fiber and a good source of potassium and protein…

The elder interrupted him, “You know you can’t just say, this is good for the heart. Because people will say, ‘Well, where is the science?’ You’ve got to say it right.”

The older man held up a coconut water bottle and pointed to the label, “The consumer thinks they know what this all means.”

Apparently, you can use words like “balance” as long as you don’t qualify it.

What you, the average consumer may not understand, is that there’s actually very little scientific evidence to support a lot of the claims made by the sports-water industry. Which is why water bottles can say it will ‘balance your body’ without specifying exactly what it is balancing. Water marketing deals in broad generalities because to deal in anything more specific may cause the consumer to ask pesky questions like “Where’s the evidence to support this claim?”

Once again, it was the younger bros chance to talk about his product. His team was trying to find a way to differentiate themselves. He spoke emphatically about his  “high fiber sports drink” which provided “ultimate superior hydration.”

“Is your product organic?” asked the buff Eugene Levy.

“It’s organic compliant.” Answered Patrick Bateman’s blonde brother.

“So, it’s not organic?”

“It’s not certified organic, no.”

This was a disappointment for everyone involved as it meant that the product could not use the coveted “certified organic” label.

The exchanges between the two man began to come more quickly, they talked about natural flavorings and how to get away with the product not being organic and having a high sodium content…then all of a sudden, it was as if their consciousness joined. The solution appeared to come to them at the same time, the catch phrase they had been waiting for:

“Wholesome hydration.”

The older man was practically shouting, “The word wholesome is very California. People will see the words wholesome hydration and think, ‘Hey no one’s talking about wholesome hydration, what is that?”

This was apparently a good thing.

“Yah kinda get in on the Whole Foods…” the young man added.

They were pumped.

“It’s about everyday hydration!”

“Healthy living!”


The buzzwords were pouring out of them now.

The older man was ever the cautious optimist, “You can say the water supports a healthy diet, but you can’t rely on that. You have to tell a story, you have to build a community.”

Community. Yes. Yes. The younger man knew all about community and told the older dude all about a partnership they were considering, “You know one thing that we are kind of excited about is partnership’s with like the American Cancer Society or breast cancer or something…”

The veteran dismissed him with a flick of his hand. “You have to be careful with partnerships or endorsements from major organizations. You don’t want to associate your product with things like cancer. You want to avoid partnerships with things that are unhealthy. You don’t want to scare people or make yourself a target.”

“True, true,” murmured the young man.

“What we want, is to be the fringe-premium to cater to more that techie image.”

Yes, it was all coming together now.

Wholesome hydration–water that is better than water, because it’s more than just water, it’s sports water.

And with that, the two men collected their bottles and departed the coffee shop, with catch-phrase and marketing scheme in tote.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Do we need another bottle water brand on the market?” We may not need another brand of water on the market, but these gentlemen are hell bent on giving it to us anyway. Think about all the healthy techie bros out there doing their triathlons who don’t have a water that’s just for them. This, evidently, is where opportunity lives and breathes.

Whatever opinion you originally thought marketers had about consumers, lower it. Listening to these two men talk it’s hard to imagine how the average consumer functions at all in their daily lives. To them, people are highly malleable, open to the power of suggestion and extremely interested in the pH balances, even if they don’t know what that means.

All you have to do is let people’s assumptions, their biases, shortcomings, their goals, desires, and fantasies do the marketing work for you.

Living and working in Palo Alto, I overhear a lot of conversations like this. They are the conversations of people who live in such an insular community, they can’t begin to understand how privileged their words sound to those who may be within earshot. Debating on how to best market bottled-water to a small segment of the population while the fourth year of an oppressive drought rages on, seems more than a little tone deaf.

The startup industry seems to run almost exclusively on turning simple concepts into hard to understand ones. Water is not complex. Take away all the water companies in the world and their marketing and people would still understand that they need water to survive.

These startup bros all use the same buzzwords and congratulate each other on their ability to identify the smallest possible niche market. They depart one another’s company to go to their investors and repeat the same buzzwords over again, except this time with canned smiles on their face. The venture capitalist firms eat it up, they are all too glad to open their wallets to solve problems that don’t really exist.

Take the simple and change it into something convoluted and arbitrarily elitist—then repackage it to the consumer, put in a nice bottle and sell it as a benefit they can’t possibly live without. #disrupt