It doesn’t seem so long ago that Water Innovation magazine (then named bottledwaterworld) profiled the launch of Thirsty Planet. How time flies. The brand was unveiled on 22 March 2007 by Waterbrands, a company also responsible for the popular British bottled water brand Harrogate Spa.
Thirsty Planet teamed up with Pump Aid, a charity that builds elephant pumps for impoverished communities in Malawi and Zimbabwe, which it maintains are simple to use and easier to fix if they break down than many other water pump solutions being implemented by charities in the region.
Thirsty Planet was further boosted by celebrity endorsement from pop star Corinne Bailey Rae. At the time of its launch, Waterbrands MD Paul Martin said the backing was very welcome, but the brand proposition of Thirsty Planet alone is strong enough to connect with consumers. Yet, the young English soul singer’s involvement certainly garnered additional publicity for the fledgling water, as well as widen the appeal of the product to younger consumers and help to impress retail buyers to further expand distribution opportunities.
Two years ago, sales orders taken after the first week of its launch (based on sales from more than 1,000 supermarket locations, including multiples such as Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Co-op), the brand had raised more than £100,000. By the end of the summer, the money raised by Thirsty Planet is set to surpass the £1m mark, which is enough money to deliver 20 litres of clean water every day to two million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Paul Martin explains that he felt from the start of the project that Thirsty Planet needed to provide transparency: “When we conceived Thirsty Planet, we felt that it was essential to let every consumer who bought our product know how much they would be giving to charity at the point of purchase.”
Equally important, those who stocked the brand also needed to be told how much money was being raised, how many pumps were created and how many people benefited as a result, so the Thirsty Planet team has continually engaged with retailers and distributors and provided collectives such as individual retail stores with a certificate letting them know they’ve funded an elephant pump.
For example, Chester Zoo, which has sold Thirsty Planet in its cafes and kiosks, has paid for the installation of water pumps in 16 villages in Zimbabwe, making the zoo an elite ‘gold’ supporter. An organisation reaches gold status when it funds its 10th pump.
For every multipack of Thirsty Planet bought (8x 50cl bottles), a fixed donation of 50p is donated to Pump Aid. Meanwhile, the message on-pack is simple: each 50p donation gifts someone in Africa clean drinking water for life.
Paul Martin reminds us that some charity bottled waters make claims about the volume of water they can deliver to the poor. For every litre of water brands sell, the amount of water such brands can generate can vary from one litre up to about 1,000 litres.
“Such programmes that measure on the basis of litres sold sound good until you hear how much can be achieved. For example, Thirsty Planet provides at least 30,000 litres to a village for every litre sold as a fixed and guaranteed contribution. In many cases, the amount is much higher than this. However, we’ve chosen to communicate how much money we donate from every pack to buyers.”
Clearly, some industry players want to see the amounts being donated by charity water brands becoming more comparable so that consumers can make more of an educated choice between the charity bottled water on sale in Britain.
While it’s difficult to see different brands, charities and clean water solutions willingly being scored for effectiveness in the programmes they deliver, a scorecard may soon be needed to cement loyalty in the market.
Many observers are also critical of the motives behind certain companies becoming involved with charity water brands. Although they’re competitively priced against category leaders, most charity water brands sell for a premium. With no extra raw material, production or packaging costs borne by the producer, the premium value applied to the product should go directly to the charity.
“Generating money for a worthy cause is one thing, but when the amount of money raised for needy people is trumped by huge profits generated by brand partners, you can’t help but worry,” says Duncan Goose of Global Ethics, responsible for the charity water brand One.
Tom Alcott of Frank Water also questions the amount of money being spent on marketing the brand rather than contributions made to charity: “It’s good to see so many players in the ethical water market, but do you think the ‘Big Four’ are really pulling their weight? Or are they just abusing consumer goodwill and using CSR as a PR exercise to increase sales?”
Alcott’s comments are aimed at Danone Waters (UK and Ireland), which has invested £3m in a celebrity-backed campaign to provide water for impoverished communities in Africa, called ‘1 litre for 10 litres’.
The activity will run for a minimum of three years, and to date, more than 1.4 billion litres has reportedly been donated through the international programme.
“Advertising isn’t problematic so long as it’s managed in a responsible way,” says a spokesperson for Danone Waters. “It’s important to generate growth for a brand through marketing, and any additional revenue from such a campaign will ultimately result in more donations for charity.”
“While cynical consumers may question the motives behind companies becoming involved with charity water brand initiatives, it’s clear that such initiatives resonate well with consumers,” says an analyst at Zenith International.
“The bottled water industry has recognised the virtues of ‘selling well and doing some good’. Whether this is distrusted by some consumers, it’s clear that many individuals within the industry care passionately about the causes they support and wish to do their bit for the common good.”
There’s no doubting people’s good intentions, but the credibility in the marketplace took a knock when news emerged at the end of 2008 that the charity water Belu hadn’t achieved a pre-tax profit since being set up in 2004. The firm has yet to supply a value for the donations, though the brand team has claimed that at least four clean water projects (in India, Mali, Madagascar and Bangladesh) have received wells and hand pumps, providing water for more than 40,000 people.
A Belu spokesperson said that the company had realised it would take time to become operationally profitable, and that to meet its commitments, it has been making donations to clean water projects from trading profit and that its ‘every bottle you buy provides clean water for one person for one month’ pledge had been met with existing projects.
The downturn in the economy has inevitably hit discretionary expenditure on luxury items. Despite high summer temperatures, the majority of charity water brands have seen volume sales decline at multiples.
“Bottled water is a discretionary spend, and bigger brands that are able to offer fiercely competitive promotions on multipacks are picking up volume at the expense of charity waters,” says Paul Martin. “Consumers at multiples are trading down and buying own-label water or choosing not to buy bottled water at all.”
Thirsty Planet is focusing on developing sales of its single pack format given that single bottle growth has been bigger then multipack decline in recent months. The brand is now being stocked by First Choice Airways and Thomson Flights, as well as B&Q, and has notched significant accounts on single bottles in a number of sectors including catering and vending with schools and local authorities.
Before the Co-operative Group decided to support the One Foundation, Global Ethics’ One water brand had been making slow but steady progress in the market. However, by October 2008, the Co-operative Group had donated more than £500,000 – with an additional £350,000 predicted by the end of 2008 – to The One Foundation through sales of Fairbourne Springs. By 2010, the retailer hopes to raise enough money to fund 400 PlayPumps roundabouts for the charity.
The small pack ethical water brands in the UK performed well in 2008 in comparison to the overall bottled water market, and brand owners should therefore remain upbeat about the future.
Analysts suggest such products are likely to perform even more strongly when an eventual upturn of the domestic economy materialises.
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