There are few product categories where branding activities make such a dramatic impact on competitiveness and differentiation than in bottled water. As many in the bottled water category have commented, all water tastes the same. This means branding in this category is not product focused, it must be story focused. The company which tells a better story and backs it up with credible facts, thereby creating an exciting a myth, wins the game.
Although the physical attributes of the product cannot be differentiated, Fiji Water has become one of the stand-out examples of creating a powerful story around a commoditised product. Intelligent and genuine branding can elevate even the simplest commodity to celebrity status. Fiji Water seems to have understood this truth extremely well. In a category dominated by France’s Evian, Coca Cola’s Dasani and PepsiCo’s Aquafina among many others, Fiji Water has come to occupy an ultra-luxury foothold in a growing global market within the short span of a decade.
All companies aspire to build brands that eventually get etched in the culture of the society and become cultural icons. But very few companies are able to achieve this iconic status. Contrary to popular perception, iconicity does not happen by chance, but rather has to be carefully planned and executed. To attain iconic status and create an identity myth, the message itself is the start. But you cannot forget about the messengers. Dissemination and communication of the brand story is critical. You can have a great product or service, but without people to perpetuate the mythology through word-of-mouth, a loyal consumer base strong enough to sustain long-term competitiveness can never develop.
Like the best luxury brands, Fiji Water has been able to build its iconic premium water status on three pillars: Creating an exciting myth, precision marketing (including personal relationships and product placements) and a controlled distribution strategy.
Fiji Water was founded in 1988 in Basalt, Colorado by David Gilmour, a businessman with interests in hotels, real estate and gold mining. The bottled water brand came into life in the early 1990s when Gilmour secured a 99 year deal with the Fijian government to tap the aquifer discovered by government contracted geologists and market the water under the Fiji Water brand name.
Fiji is a 332-island nation in the South Pacific, very far from most markets and customers. This physical inaccessibility has provided Fiji Water to create the story of this water being extracted from a virgin ecosystem far from acid rain, herbicides, pesticides and other pollutants and filtered naturally for years through layers of silica, basalt and sandstone. This journey from the atmosphere to bottling – something unique for consumers to sit up and take notice of – is communicated clearly through packaging and exquisitely on the company’s website.
Complementing the story of the water itself, the brand of Fiji itself has long been known as an unexploited land full of tropical forest surrounded by coral reefs, unpolluted by the modern world’s necessary evils and was protected by nature. These factors created a very strong myth about the brand amongst the customers who, in turn, perpetuate the mythology that built the brand.
Myth creation was backed by precision brand marketing. Fiji Water did not resort to the usual mass media advertising for its product launch. To this day, Fiji does very little traditional advertising and continues to emphasise a two-pronged strategy – careful product placement and building strategic relationships.
Product placement: The first prong of communication was placing the product in leading Hollywood movies and other high-profile events to associate the brand with an elite community, attract attention and to create buzz. Fiji Water has resorted to product placement as a major channel of promotion and brand building. By hiring Creative Entertainment Services, a Hollywood marketing consulting firm, Fiji has been able to fit in Fiji Water bottles in scripts of many major Hollywood movies. These exposures to the brand, when combined with the exciting mythical story, have made the brand noticeable. Fiji Water has also sponsored many local events such as golf tournaments, sailing regattas, and musical events. Fiji Water is regularly front and centre as official water sponsors and exclusive partners of events such as the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Fashion Week and Screen Actors Guild Awards.
In fact, Fiji Water has leveraged on its presence in such high profile events to show its support towards societal and economic issues. Its new community outreach program, One Sip Forward, is an effort by the brand to use its red carpet position to make a statement about female directors and empowering women. For example, during the Golden Globe Awards on 7 January 2018, it pledged to donate USD 1,000 (up to USD 100,000) for every photo of a celebrity drinking Fiji Water, to the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women.
A strong connection with film stars and other artists has even inspired new features such as a straw-cap, which was a minor, but meaningful innovation that came from observing how celebrities would modify their bottles so that they could sip without messing up their makeup.
Building relationships: The first prong of Fiji Water’s communication strategy was building personal relationships with the chefs of leading restaurants, resorts and spas to promote the buy-in of the brand. Gilmour used his contacts in the hotel industry to pitch his product to the top-end hotels, resorts and restaurants. By coming out with an award-winning slippery silver bottle design, Fiji water has been able to replace Evian in many of the top-end restaurants.
Through this controlled distribution strategy in line with its positioning of a high-end product, Fiji Water has ensured that it is available at the best hotels, resorts and spas used by the leading stars and managed to get chef’s recommendations. As is generally known, the bottled water category is notorious for its difficulty in making money. Fiji Water’s pricing strategies offered distributors as well as retailers the opportunity to make profits in a category that they had become used to not making any money in when selling a commodity product. Furthermore, because Fiji Water bottles were often off the shelves due to their early inability to match huge initial demand, this added to the brand’s feel of exclusivity.
With a brand community of loyal, highly visible customers, Fiji water bottles appear in magazines constantly and appear to be one of chosen water brands of many stars without having to sponsor them directly. Consumers are now the most powerful force in marketing. The objective and most important result of developing an iconic brand is not just the sharing, but the growth and strength of brand communities that perpetuate the brand’s iconic status.
Today, sustainability in business is a hot topic. Although environmental efforts may not directly prompt consumers to choose a particular brand, not making societal and environmental considerations while doing business could be a reason for consumers to not choose the brand. This is even more important for a brand like Fiji Water, in which its raw materials are directly extracted from the earth’s natural resources and when its target consumer group is by nature, more health and environmental conscious. Fiji Water understands this, evident from its numerous environmental efforts.
Its societal contributions include the Fiji Water Foundation launched in 2007, a charitable trust funded and supported by its owners, employees and corporate affiliates. The Fiji Water Foundation is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in Fiji and has focused its efforts and investments on three priority areas of development:
Additionally, the Foundation offers disaster relief during floods and severe weather events that frequently impact the islands. To date, the Foundation has funded projects impacting hundreds of thousands of lives across the Fijian islands
Another long-term partnership that Fiji Water has cultivated as part of its conservation efforts is with Conservation International (CI), a leading environmental organization. Fiji Water is working with CI to preserve the purity and biological wealth of the Fijian Islands. A chief project is the conservation of Fiji’s largest remaining unprotected rain forest, the Sovi Basin. By supporting the CI team in this landmark project, FIJI Water has played a key role in establishing a long-term conservation lease for approximately 40,000 acres of rain forest land.
In addition, since 2009, Fiji Water has been a proud member of 1% for the Planet, a growing movement of more than 1,000 companies that donate 1% of their sales to a global network of organizations committed to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. Through its membership in 1% for the Planet, Fiji Water supports a variety of environmental causes in Fiji, the U.S. and other parts of the world.
Moving forward, it is vital for Fiji Water to consistently promote the brand’s commitment to environmental protection. One of the pillars in its environmental policy is to encourage employees, partners and consumers to recycle all plastic products, including water bottles. Some other related initiatives and areas of environmental conservation that Fiji Water could consider tapping into include:
The biggest challenge for Fiji Water moving forward will be to sustain this level of interest in its brand. The problem of basing the brand heavily on such a myth is that it does not create barriers for any new entrants to come up with some other equally exciting myth. Given the low level of involvement of customers in selecting water, customers would be willing to try out newer and more exciting brands as and when they come up. In this regard, Fiji Water should focus on formulating a strong customer loyalty and retention drive in the light of impending competition. Though Fiji Water has managed to get Forbes to include it in a list of things “worth every penny”, it would indeed require much more than a strong story to carry it through in the future.
In addition, Fiji Water will need to further align its brand strategy with the lifestyle of its consumers, moving forward. Its current bottle packaging is designed to be “slim, trim and ready for the gym” according to its website, and is able to fit everywhere, including cupholders and treadmills. This is a good effort that reflects a better understanding and assimilation of the product within consumers’ lifestyles. But more than that, Fiji Water needs to also consider how its product can add value to consumers in different parts of their lifestyle. Besides merely ensuring a steady stream of distribution to restaurants, hotels, resorts and high-end supermarkets, having a strong presence in and leveraging on the health, beauty and wellness trends (e.g. through sponsoring related events) will also be beneficial in building its brand equity.
Lastly but also most importantly, it is essential for Fiji Water to have unwavering focus on delivering on its brand promise of providing an experience of drinking natural, untouched water. There have been recent episodes where checks were done on Fiji’s bottled water and found to contain high levels of arsenic. The brand needs to be very careful in preventing and mitigating these issues as they directly erode consumer confidence in the brand which has a direct impact on brand equity.
Branding is a boardroom agenda. The branding process cannot reach its logical conclusion unless the chairman and the CEO buy into it and back it up with the required resources. But merely having the branding knowledge will not suffice. Leaders need to have a holistic vision and an in-depth understanding of the discipline. One also has to be an excellent business leader and brand marketer with a truly international edge.
Evian pioneered the idea in the bottled water category of elevating a commodity to iconic brand status. Looking back, Evian did things that Fiji Water is doing now – becoming successful with its marketing, storytelling and distribution strategies. By following non-traditional methods of marketing, having a very distinct positioning and a high end pricing, Fiji Water has been able to establish strong brand equity in the top tier market segment including celebrities, Hollywood stars and the best restaurants in the world – achieving iconic status without being distinctly different from each of its competitors in terms of the taste of its product.