Message in the VOSS Bottle

Over the years, I thought I had seen and tried just about every type of sparkling water available in a public place. But recently, at one of the many fine restaurants in Moscow, Russia, I was served a sparkling water that caused a stir among the friends at my table.

Why? Because the bottle it came in was like nothing any of us had ever seen.

It got me thinking about the premium bottled-water category, and what a challenge it must be to break through with a new brand. This is the one category in which the product itself is an internationally recognized commodity that is colorless, tasteless, and (hopefully) odorless. It is a brand category that only mad dogs and marketers would venture to enter.

But that didn’t stop VOSS Artesian Water from Norway—a brand that breaks through, purely because of its brand packaging.

VOSS arrived at my table in a clear cylindrical glass bottle reminiscent more of a fine fragrance than of water. The name was set in lowercase type, silk-screened in gray directly onto the bottle—no paper label to obscure the purity of its contents. The cap was silver plastic, of the same diameter as the bottle, so it appeared as a continuation of the cylinder. This design was certainly unique for a water bottle, which typically has a cap atop a narrow neck. The effect was finished with a simple silver paper seal attached to the cap and part of the glass cylinder with the word “sparkling” printed on it.

We’ll get to the story behind VOSS in a moment, but first, a brief dive into the water market. The world is crazy about bottled water, according to the website finewaters.com: “The global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion liters (41 billion gallons) in 2004, up 57 percent from the 98 billion liters consumed five years earlier.… The United States is the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, with Americans drinking 26 billion liters in 2004, or approximately one eight-ounce glass per person every day.”

However, only a small percentage of the bottled-water market is considered “premium” water—the type of water bottled for high-end consumption. One look at finewaters.com (“the voice for bottled-water connoisseurs and their accompanying lifestyle”) and you quickly realize that premium waters are taken very seriously, indeed—with tastings, ratings, and awards competitions not unlike the wine market. Even the bubbles of sparkling waters are classified by size and quality.

A smaller percentage still of bottled water is considered “super premium.” This is the market in which VOSS plays. These bottled waters are typically not available in retail outlets, but rather enjoy restricted distribution via fine restaurants, hotels, clubs, spas, and water bars (yes, there are water bars in Paris and other European cities). Most of these super-premium waters, by the way, originate in Europe.

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