From the start, Nevins pioneered a three-part strategy. First, he connected bottled water to exclusivity: In 1977, just before Perrier's U.S. launch, he flew 60 journalists to France to visit "the source" where Perrier bubbled out of the ground. He connected Perrier to health, sponsoring the New York City Marathon, just as long-distance running was exploding as a fad across America. And he associated Perrier with celebrity, launching with $4 million in TV commercials featuring Orson Welles. It worked. In 1978, its first full year in the United States, Perrier sold $20 million of water. The next year, sales tripled to $60 million.
What made Perrier distinctive was that it was a sparkling water, served in a signature glass bottle. But that's also what left the door open for Evian, which came to the United States in 1984. Evian's U.S. marketing was built around images of toned young men and women in tight clothes sweating at the gym. Madonna drank Evian--often onstage at concerts. "If you were cool, you were drinking bottled water," says Ed Slade, who became Evian's vice president of marketing in 1990. "It was a status symbol."
Evian was also a still water, which Americans prefer; and it was the first to offer a plastic bottle nationwide. The clear bottle allowed us to see the water--how clean and refreshing it looked on the shelf. Americans have never wanted water in cans, which suggest a tinny aftertaste before you take a sip. The plastic bottle, in fact, did for water what the pop-top can had done for soda: It turned water into an anywhere, anytime beverage, at just the moment when we decided we wanted a beverage, everywhere, all the time.
Perrier and Evian launched the bottled-water business just as it would prove irresistible. Convenience and virtue aligned. Two-career families, overprogrammed children, prepared foods in place of home-cooked meals, the constant urging to eat more healthfully and drink less alcohol--all reinforce the value of bottled water. But those trends also reinforce the mythology.
We buy bottled water because we think it's healthy. Which it is, of course: Every 12-year-old who buys a bottle of water from a vending machine instead of a 16-ounce Coke is inarguably making a healthier choice. But bottled water isn't healthier, or safer, than tap water. Indeed, while the United States is the single biggest consumer in the world's $50 billion bottled-water market, it is the only one of the top four--the others are Brazil, China, and Mexico--that has universally reliable tap water. Tap water in this country, with rare exceptions, is impressively safe. It is monitored constantly, and the test results made public. Mineral water has a long association with medicinal benefits--and it can provide minerals that people need--but there are no scientific studies establishing that routinely consuming mineral water improves your health. The FDA, in fact, forbids mineral waters in the United States from making any health claims.
If the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.
And for this healthy convenience, we're paying what amounts to an unbelievable premium. You can buy a half- liter Evian for $1.35--17 ounces of water imported from France for pocket change. That water seems cheap, but only because we aren't paying attention.
In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National Park. It's so good the EPA doesn't require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.
Taste, of course, is highly personal. New Yorkers excepted, Americans love to belittle the quality of their tap water. But in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, springwater, and luxury waters. At the height of Perrier's popularity, Bruce Nevins was asked on a live network radio show one morning to pick Perrier from a lineup of seven carbonated waters served in paper cups. It took him five tries.
We are actually in the midst of a second love affair with bottled water. In the United States, many of the earliest, still-familiar brands of springwater--Poland Spring, Saratoga Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead--were originally associated w