Americans spend nearly $12 billion a year on bottled water because they think it is a cleaner, more convenient product than tap water. Many young people and high-income consumers also think there is a certain cachet associated with buying bottled water. But several top-selling brands, including Dasani and Aquafina, originate from local municipal water supplies, not pristine alpine springs, and the plastic bottles are damaging to the environment. That’s why the adman and public relations expert behind the “Tappening” campaign want to turn the tide in favor of the faucet. Their mission: Make tap water cool again.
They are not the only ones out there who believe their efforts will add up to results.
Droga5 produced the Tap Project for New York City restaurants last year to encourage diners to donate $1 every time they ordered tap water instead of bottled. That effort will roll out in more than a dozen cities this month. The money goes to Unicef efforts to provide clean drinking water in third-world countries.
If successful, these programs have the potential to cut into the lucrative, high-margin bottled water business.
Eric Yaverbaum, president of the PR firm Ericho Communications, and Mark DiMassimo, founder of New York agency DIGO, have teamed up to create the pro-tap water campaign. They, along with other marketing experts, consider the selling of the American public on bottled water to be one of the all-time greatest marketing coups.
“People drink single-use bottled water because they think the water is cleaner and that they are doing something good for themselves,” Yaverbaum says. “It is 100 percent branding, advertising and PR, and it is also 100 percent untrue.”
In study after study, bottled water is shown to be no safer than tap water, which is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Tappening.com refers people to a national tap water database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, where viewers can determine the quality of the tap water they drink.
Consider Tappening, launched in November, a form of business philanthropy. Founded to right a perceived wrong, the campaign is also a business that sells reusable, well-designed hard plastic and stainless-steel water bottles via tappening.com. Priced at $14.95 each, the bottles bear the slogans, “Think Global, Drink Local” and “What’s Tappening?” The campaign will release a new bottle in about six weeks that will read, “I bottle my own water.”
The site lists some of the negative consequences of bottled water. Producing disposable plastic water bottles requires 47 million gallons of oil each year, according to the Container Recycling Institute. Then the bottles clog up our landfills because even though they are 100 percent recyclable, 75 percent end up being tossed out with the garbage.
The effort also is coordinating an advocacy group-style attack on Coca-Cola through its “send a message in a bottle to the bottled water industry” effort.
The Tappening Web site urges all visitors — more than 400,000 of them to date — to write a message saying “I’m switching to tap water,” and place it in a plastic water bottle that will be sent to the Tappening founders. When DiMassimo and Yaverbaum amass 1 million of these messages, they will send the package to incoming Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent on his first day on the job this July. So far, they have collected just under 100,000 bottles.
The issue for the Tappening folks lies in the label. The advocacy group Corporate Accountability International claims credit for prompting Pepsi to agree last July to change its Aquafina label to state its product “originates from public water sources.” Pepsi says the company was already in the process of making the change, which will appear on its label in the next few months.
“We’re simply explaining the purification process from start to finish,” says Pepsi-Cola North America spokeswoman Michelle Naughton. “Pepsi has been a leader in giving consumers more information on our product labels and this is just another example.”
Corporate Accountability also asked Pepsi to remove from the Aquafina label the picture of a mountain, which implies a pure spring water source for the product, because it considers the image “an emblem of just how misleading bottled water marketing can be,” says Corporate Accountability spokesman Nick Guroff. Pepsi has not agreed to do so.
So far, Coke has not yielded to pressure regarding the disclosure of its water source. It’s sticking with the word “purified” on its Dasani label, which is a standard established by the Food and Drug Administration. Nowhere on the label does it say that Dasani also comes from tap water sources, an omission the Tappening founders consider deceptive. (Dasani is made from tap water that is put through a carbon filtration process, which takes out some ingredients and adds minerals. Aquafina uses a similar method.)
“We think purified water describes what the product is,” says Lee Underwood, Coke’s issues manager. He adds that the company’s commitment to the environment can be seen in its building of “the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant” in Spartanburg, S.C.
As for Tappening’s “send a message” campaign, Underwood says the actual shipment of the bottles will result in “transportation-related energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.” But Underwood assured that any empty bottles received would be recycled.
The Tappening campaign is not supported with paid advertising to get its message out. The Web site and the viral buzz it generates, along with a few press releases, are it. They are also getting “free media,” which to date includes Associated Press and business press articles, radio interviews and national television appearances. Trend-watcher Jane Buckingham appeared on Good Morning America on the first show of the new year to say that the “hip, new, reusable water bottles” from Tappening will be “hot” this year. The Tappening founders also sent sample bottles to celebrities as part of a “celebrity-seeding” program, Yaverbaum says. Celebrities who have received the bottles include Cameron Diaz, Eva Longoria and Scarlett Johansson.
To educate themselves before launching the effort, DiMassimo and Yaverbaum watched a documentary called Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home. They have since contributed money to help distribute the film and also promote it on the Tappening site. Yaverbaum became more conscious about environmental issues when his 16-year-old daughter, Cole, asked, “Daddy, what are you doing about the environment?” Cole made him change the lightbulbs at home. She also wouldn’t set foot in his gas-guzzling SUV.
DiMassimo and Yaverbaum treat the Tappening campaign like a passionate hobby, since they both have full-time day jobs that involve meeting clients’ demands. Over the years Ericho has represented clients like Ikea, Sony and H&M while DIGO has worked for Jet Blue, among others.
“We both have been careful about who we worked for,” DiMassimo says. “I have not worked on cigarettes and shied away from categories I thought were not helpful. I evaluated the opportunities based on trying to do no harm. We wanted to make sure we had the answer to the question from our children about what we were doing for the environment.”
Can the Tappening effort really make drinking tap water cool again? A SWOT analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats follows:
So far, the Tappening founders, who each invested about $100,000 to establish the Web site and design the bottles, are pulling in cash: Approximately 39,000 bottles sold out in the first 36 hours, and Tappening has grossed roughly $1.5 million so far, all of which has been poured back into the business.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola officials have agreed to talk to the Tappening founders, and a decision on the Dasani label could be reached that is of mutual benefit to both sides. So the PR surrounding the advocacy-style attack designed to bring a marketer to the table to talk is getting some results. “If they change their label to indicate the source of their water, we would absolutely not target their bottled water brand,” Yaverbaum says.
The Tappening effort represents social marketing, an attempt to change consumer behavior, just like Advertising Council campaigns have gotten us to wear seat belts or “take a bite out of crime.”
The danger is that Tappening’s effort could end up resembling the futile efforts of Sisyphus if the real reason consumers drink bottled water is convenience — and not because they think they are getting a healthier product.
William Smith, evp of the Academy for Educational Development and editor of Social Marketing Quarterly, doubts the effort to get Americans to switch back to tap water will get much traction because bottled water is so portable.
“I believe a small group of environmentally friendly people will buy into it, but a national trend seems hard to believe,” Smith says. “That is principally because it is just more work for consumers who like the portability. And water doesn’t seem to be price sensitive. People pay a lot of money for it.”
For Peggy Conlon, Ad Council president and CEO, the issue is scalability. “These are not the first bottles to come out and tell us we should fill them up with tap water,” Conlon says. “I wonder if only using digital media, and not having the right distribution partners, like a Wal-Mart, will limit their options. It is the perfect product for the times, but we will see bigger players coming in to put significantly more marketing dollars behind the effort and scale up the distribution of the product. You have to get into the mass-market chains.”
DiMassimo himself acknowledges Conlon’s point. “We are very far from maximizing the opportunity because we are focused on our day jobs, and have commitments to clients that have to come first,” he says.
In the end, these are communication guys who admit that they know little about product manufacturing and distribution.
There is the opportunity for the Tappening founders to find a strategic partner who knows how to manufacture products and distribute them on a global scale. “Then we would be acting like a smart client,” DiMassimo says.
The duo has also been talking to water filter companies, such as Pur and Brita, which view the Tappening movement as a great way to brand tap water, and consider the effort a perfect fit with the products they are selling. The Tappening founders declined to name the two companies they are talking to.
“The goal here wasn’t to evaluate success based on the usual brand metrics,” DiMassimo says. “We really wanted to create a brand movement, and we are happy to have the Tappening name adopted by people who are not our customers. We cannot believe the number of water entrepreneurs who have come out of the woodwork since we launched this.”
The biggest threat is someone who can do it bigger and better. Someone like Sir Richard Branson, the British founder of the Virgin Music label, Virgin Airways and Virgin Cola, DiMassimo says.
“We have created an opportunity that is attracting competitors, and somebody who comes in and combines our level of branding skills with a big-budget commitment and fully focused management team will produce a huge business,” he says.
Conlon is even more blunt. “I like the idea and I like the product, but I am not sure a part-time, Web-only based hobby approach will take off,” she says.
Sir Richard, are you listening?
Wendy Melillo is an Adweek contributing writer and an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.