How was the VOSS brand born?
Voss Artesian Water from Norway got started by two Norwegian buddies who mutually shared an interest in a naturally fresh, pure h2o. They both grew up in Norway, and then split their educational/professional life at college age. Christopher Harlem studied at University of San-Francisco, while Ole Christian Sandberg stayed in Norway and pursued his entrepreneurial efforts. Whenever Ole came to visit Christopher in San Francisco or Christopher returned to Norway, the first thing Christopher requested was Norwegian water. It was then that they knew they wanted to share Norway fresh water with the rest of the world “VOSS”.
Voss founders Ole Christian Sandberg and Christopher Harlem set out in 1998 to create a revolutionary bottled water brand that would stand out in the large but homogenous and competitive landscape of the global bottled water market. In particular, the ultra-premium segment offered opportunities for a chic and sophisticated brand to distinguish itself and appeal to a broad range of consumers worldwide at an elevated price point, creating an attractive proposition for customers in multiple channels and geographies. Over the next several years, the Company developed a leading on-premise channel platform in the U.S. and in many other countries, and established its ultra-premium brand equity by partnering with some of the most prestigious hotel and restaurant accounts in the world.
Norway is home to some of the purest spring and artesian water on the earth. Ole Christian Sandberg and Christopher Harlem, wanted to provide the world with “the highest quality water, to the highest accounts, in the highest-quality package.” They located a source for artesian water—water derived from an underground aquifer that rises naturally to the surface. VOSS says its water “comes from an aquifer in the pristine nature of Southern Norway, protected from pollutants by layers of rock and ice, producing a pure water unlike any other.”
With the source located, Sandberg and Harlem next wanted to package their water in a unique way that represented the purity of the source and defined the brand, setting it apart from anything else on the market. They turned to Neil Kraft, a former creative director for Calvin Klein. Kraft and his team took their inspiration from fragrance-industry designers who use personality and packaging to define a brand.
Kraft talks about how he developed the VOSS brand on the company’s website. He says that despite the fact that premium water was purchased to reflect an individual’s sophistication, the bottles largely lacked style. He felt that only the brand image could differentiate one water from the next.
This thinking led to the creation of the VOSS bottle which, Kraft believes, “reflects the true essence of the brand.” He calls it “a new way to think about water. Beyond refreshing…to beautiful.”
It took 12 months to get the unusual bottle and cap manufactured in Europe. The product was ready to be sold in April 2000.
The company then initiated the third part of its brand strategy: limiting distribution of VOSS exclusively to upscale establishments such as fine restaurants, hotels, clubs, and spas, first in Europe and eventually in the US. VOSS quickly became a significant player in the market, helped along by its trendy bottle being seen in the hands of worldwide celebrities. (Apparently, Madonna took a liking to it.)
VOSS competes with other leading super premium water brands in beautiful bottles, among them the sleek blue Ty Nant bottle (Wales), the frosted Finé bottle (Japan), the minimalist Tau bottle (Wales), and the Swarovski crystal-encrusted Bling H2O bottle (US). Bling H2O targets celebrities, athletes, and other beautiful people. It is absurdly priced at about US$ 40 per bottle.
Today, while the distribution strategy for most super-premium waters is still through hotels, clubs, and the like, VOSS and several of the other brands have taken a new tact. Now they are selectively distributing their products via upscale retail channels to make them more widely available. But the target audience for these brands will continue to be people who can afford to pay a premium price for premium water. In this case, it seems, water not only reaches its own level—it reaches the highest level of society.