To sell bottled water online, direct-to-consumer brands are taking a new approach

Brands selling bottled water online are rethinking everything from packaging to water's role as a luxury signifier to sell to a new generation of consumers.

Gen Z Water, which launched in April, sells water using reusable aluminum bottles. (Photo: Gen Z Water)
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Water is the source of life, sustaining humans, animals, plants... and a fair number of direct-to-consumer brands.

The business of bottled water is now a huge one, with the U.S. market generating revenues of $19.4 billion in 2019. What’s inside the bottle isn’t much different from what comes out of the tap at home for free — as blind taste tests show — but that’s not why people are handing over their money. Bottled water is a status symbol, driven by the promises brands make around health, provenance, and purity.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Culture in 2006, Richard Wilk described bottled water marketers as “magicians who transform mundane and abundant things into exotic valuables,” having achieved the feat of “getting people to pay for things that they already have in abundance.”

The changing face of bottled water

That magic formula, however, now seems to be losing its effect. People have grown more conscious of the amount of plastic they consume as they hydrate — meaning disposable bottles of water are now less chic — and are increasingly sharing Wilk’s skepticism when it comes to the health claims bottled water brands make.

For those who want to rebel against the bottled water status quo, there are now several options. Five-year-old CanO Water uses resealable aluminum cans, while Flow Hydration and Boxed Water is Better package their water using plant-based packs and Elopak cartons. Gen Z Water, launched in April, uses reusable aluminum screw-cap bottles. Liquid Death, the brash brand that kicked off the trend for anti-aspirational water, has now raised a total of $55.6 million in funding to sell water in tallboy cans.

“It’s 2021, the planet is under siege from climate change, a pandemic and political unrest. It’s unprecedented times we live in,” says Doug Batie, the founder of Gen Z Water. “And a new bottle of water comes along, made of aluminum and calling itself Gen Z. Does it solve any of the above problems? No. It’s simply a bottle of water brand.”

With more and more people than ever carrying around their own refillable water bottles, water brands will have to adapt in order to survive, Batie says. Younger consumers in particular are turned off by unnecessary plastic packaging — according to a recent survey by second-hand fashion app Depop, 45% of Gen Zers say their shopping can be influenced by whether or not brands are using eco-friendly materials.

“The water category is going to continue to lose relevance and sales as this consumer becomes the majority spender,” he says. Aluminum bottles, Batie hopes, can serve as a middle ground: not quite as hardy as a Nalgene bottles, but a better option than buying a disposable plastic bottle when you’re on the go.

Like so many bottled water brands before them, what Liquid Death, Gen Z Water, and others are selling isn’t what’s inside the bottle, but a new kind of status symbol. Their bottles are a reaction to seeing the world and its oceans fill up with plastic. But an even more radical consumer act? Simply choosing to turn on the tap.

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Correction: A previous version of this article said that Boxed Water Is Better uses Tetra Pak cartons, it's been updated to reflect that the brand uses Elopak cartons.

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