What Bottled Water Can Tell Us About Brands

How cultural knowledge can improve your marketing skills

Photo by Bin Foch on Unsplash

Marketing Genius: Creating the Myth

Consider the marketing genius behind bottled water.

In the Western World, bottled water represents excess: a ubiquitous commodity available in millions of homes direct from the tap for next to nothing is packaged and sold, often at over a hundred times the cost of the water itself.

Much of the value of bottled water is derived from its convenience, but demand is also created from powerful marketing.

Richard Wilk has pointed out that successful brands create meaning for customers. In this case of bottled water, this is often means evoking feelings of safety through ‘purification’ messaging; this has turned the ultimate commodity into a branded good.

Marketers can often find meaning by using national contradictions, like the inconsistency between the romantic idyll of natural spring water and the technological image of purified water, clean of contamination.

Water companies like Evian ‘tap’ into these stereotypes by using images of mountain springs to evoke feelings of nature which create meaning for consumers, whilst others such as Aquafina capitalize on the message of purified water, free of chemicals.

The value created by such brands is evident from the fact that bottled water is proven to be ‘no tastier’ (Wilk, 2006) than tap water, and yet consumers still purchase huge amounts.

Desolation: Understanding Social Missions

The environmental desolation caused by the proliferation of bottled water cannot be understated.

Brand meanings, whilst still present, are evolving: mission-based meanings or values are proving more potent brand signals to millennials as identified by Enso’s Worldvalue 2018 research.

The research identified that millennials feel a ‘relationship’ with a brand if the mission statement of the brand conveys a social purpose. For example, Starbucks has a number of both environmental and social initiatives which make it appeal to millenials.

Holt (2003) writes of how successful marketers create ‘icons’ through which people ‘experience powerful myths’, and it seems that the future cultural myths for brands to create meaning in the Western consumer society will be strongly influenced by themes of political activism and social impact.

Significantly, these themes will not only need to be symbolic; they need to respond to a desire from millenials for action. The greater impact brands can have in sustainability, the greater the impact it will have on their marketing campaigns.

The Marketing Perspective

Brands undoubtedly still create meaning for consumers. Marketing perspectives, such as that of Holt, show how brands can draw on cultural knowledge to convey meaning.

You can use this cultural knowledge in your own marketing campaigns by:

  • Evoking feelings of safety and comfort
  • Seizing national contradictions
  • Understanding the importance of social missions and real action

Whilst brand meaning is ever-present, it is a dynamic concept and the future of brand meaning is likely to be focused on mission-driven social goals.


Holt, D. (2003). What becomes and Icon most?.

Wilk, R. (2006). Bottled Water. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(3), 303-325.

Enso WorldValue Research: https://www.enso.co/worldvalue

Finance, Tech and Productivity. Studying Economics & Management at Oxford University.

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