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.
How was the VOSS brand born? Norway is home to some of the purest spring and artesian water on the earth. Two enterprising Norwegians, 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.