Most expensive brand 5300 times pricier: Companies tapping New Zealander's willingness to pay for bottled water
Consumers are rarely willing to pay thousands of times more for a slightly more convenient, slightly better-tasting product.
But with water, it seems they are.
The most expensive supermarket-sold bottled water is more than 5300 times more expensive per litre than Auckland tap water.
Even cheaper home-branded bottled water is about 280 times more expensive than tap water.
And yet sales of bottled water grew 25 per cent last year, and 25 per cent the year before, according to the Beverage Council.
Often, it seems people are opting for bottled water as an alternative to soft drinks, which are in decline.
There's a cascade of water pricing.
Tap water is the most economic. Auckland's Watercare charges $1.409 per 1000 litres to households who are already paying fixed rate charges to get water piped into their homes for uses like cooking, cleaning, showering and flushing the loo.
The cheapest of bottled waters are the giant five to 10 litre bottles, followed by the larger, but easier to handle 1.5l bottles that go easily into the fridge door.
Then comes the single-serve, easy to carry bottles ranging in size from 500ml to 850ml.
Supermarket house brands sold in large snap-wrapped trays are cheapest designed to compete with brands like Pump and H2Go.
The supermarkets are the biggest bottled water sellers in the country.
Flavoured branded waters with low or zero calories come next.
The most expensive is bottled water for people too posh to drink common, old New Zealand rain-sourced water, like San Pellegrino.
In 2008 University of Waikato master's student Isabelle Kunze did her thesis on why people buy expensive environmentally-damaging bottled water, inspired by seeing so many students, who should be among those least likely to waste money on fancy water, wandering around campus sipping from fancy bottles of branded water.
"It seems as if bottled water has become our 'constant companion because we take 'our bottle everywhere: to work, to the gym, while travelling and even in our bed rooms," she writes.
While there is an underpinning to buying bottled water with households periodically replacing their emergency water supplies to allow them to get through events like earthquakes, Kunze concludes the real driver was the victory of very clever marketing, driven by large multi-national companies.
American academic Richard Wilk called the marketers "magicians who transform mundane and abundant things into exotic values".
Australian-owned supermarkets' own-branded water is the biggest selling bottled water, says Olly Munro from the New Zealand Beverage Council.
Kunze says: "Water sold in plastic bottles can be seen as part of the process of commodification of nature within capitalist societies and cultures of consumption."
Bottled water sales are not about nutrition, but consumer identity, with food and drink sales driven by people's desires to be associated with certain traits like beauty, nature and health.
Women appear to be targeted more than men in bottled water marketing, Kunze says.
So careful are marketers about their brands, one international water bottler Danone refused to let Kunze use a picture of its Mizone water for fear it could damage its brand.
Munro says there has been a rise in the drinking of water compared to other forms of drink, evidence the council says shows consumers are able to make their own decisions and do not need steering by policy measures like a sugar tax.
Research the council commissioned found that 27.5 per cent of New Zealanders' hydration now came from water, followed by coffee (24.2 per cent), tea (20.8 per cent), milk (11.5 per cent), juice and soft drinks (3.5 per cent), though that is a national picture.
The drinking habits of individuals will range from people who spend nothing on bottled water and soft drinks, to those who splash out routinely on soft drinks and bottled water, and who rarely taste water from a tap.
Ironically, increasing bottled water sales appear to be the result of people shifting away from sugary soft drinks, often made and sold by the companies making and selling bottled water.
Munro says: "Water- tap, bottled and cooler- remains the most popular drink for both children and adults in New Zealand, up more than 10 per cent on 2010 and growing. In particular, bottled water sales have grown more than 25 per cent year on year for the past two years."
"Sales of low and no-calorie soft drink options have jumped by 67 per cent between 2008 and 2016," he said.
But Munro warns that just because you see someone in the street drinking from a Pump or a H2Go bottle, does not necessarily mean they are a bottled water junky. Some image-conscious but frugal types buy bottled water and then refill their bottles before heading out.
COST OF WATER
- Tap water from Auckland's Watercare: 0.14cents
- Countdown Spring water 1.5l: 40cents per litre
- Pure Dew Water Ultra 6l: 60c
- Kiwi Blue Water (still) 1.5litre: 70c per litre
- Countdown Spring Water 600ml (24pack): $1.67 per litre
- Water for Everyone 750ml: $2.70 per litre
- Pump Lime 750ml: $3.30 per litre
- H2Go Boysenberry 750ml: $3.60 per litre
- Perrier 750ml: $5.30 per litre
- San Pellegrino sparkling 250ml (6 pack): $8 per litre