Bottled Water Industy Faces Downward Spiral
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Nestlé Chief Executive Officer Paul Bulcke has said that 2009 will be a year of 'stabilization' for the company's bottled water division and that the industry needs to work more on its image. In terms of marketing Nestlé Waters North America has launched a series of television advertisements to promote its Pure Life brand as a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. The advertisements are presently targeting the US Spanish speaking population and will move into English language television advertising soon. The company hopes that consumers of carbonated soft drinks will continue shifting to bottled water.
While the company is targeting soda drinkers in its advertising, it is going directly after the bottled water backlash through concerted and strategic initiatives. Some of the tactics employed by the company to confront its detractors include, directly lobbying municipal politicians, writing numerous letters to the editor and op eds vilifying the anti-bottled water movement, threatening lawsuits and actually infiltrating and spying on water activists.
In Canada, where the list of municipalities banning bottled water is rapidly expanding (twelve municipalities so far in 2009), Nestlé Waters' has mounted an extensive lobbying and public relations campaign to try and avert any more bans. In the days leading up to the city council vote on banning bottled water in Toronto, city councillors faced a barrage of lobbying from Nestlé Waters and the bottled water industry.
These frenzied attempts to sway votes away from a ban took place over the two days of debates when the industry brought a battery of lobbyists, corporate executives and industry associations into the council chamber to influence the vote. Bottled water industry representatives used lobbyists from the Sussex Strategy Group to intensively lobby city councillors. Active lobbying took place during the entire six-hour debate even while councillors were speaking. The industry also had communications and PR representatives Argyle Communications attend parts of the debate. The high-priced strategy ultimately failed to influence elected officials, who voted with a two-thirds majority to ban bottled water and reinvest in the public delivery of drinking water.
Since December 2008, when the Toronto motion passed, 10 bans have passed in Ontario municipalities. In the majority these cases Nestlé Waters has contacted city officials to either provide them with company information or to speak at committee or council meetings where the bans are being debated. It is unclear if Nestlé Waters has exclusive distribution deals with any of the municipalities it is contacting. This indicates that the company is frantically trying to curb the momentum of the bottled water backlash and sees municipal action on bottled water as a major threat to its bottom line.
A radio ad promoting Miami-Dade County's tap water as a cleaner, safer and cheaper option than bottled water prompted Nestlé Waters North America to threaten to sue the County if the ads were not removed. The company leveled its threat at the County in October 2008 when the advertisements had already been on the air since August. At a point when bottled water sales are dropping, the harassment of Miami-Dade shows how much is at stake for this company and how it will aggressively counter criticism of not only its own brands but bottled water in general.
A full-page advertisement appeared in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail in October 2008, that made a series of statements, including that: "most water bottles avoid landfill sites and are recycled"; "bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world"; and, "Nestlé Pure Life is a Healthy, Eco-Friendly Choice".