Jan Bender launched Iskilde a still mineral water from an artesian spring in rural Denmark – the Mossø conservation area – in 2005, and the product won third place in a Decanter taste list in 2008.
Iskilde is a founding member of the Fine Water Society – which a membership organization that educates the world about, in its own words, the ‘difference between processed water and water from a natural source with terroir’ – and the brand now served in top restaurants and hotels worldwide.
Distinguishing fine waters as a niche within waters, Bender - speaking at Zenith International's December 2014 Premium Waters event in Dubai - said that product safety in this segment was a given.
“The quality obviously has to be high. You can buy [cheap] water for €1 ($0.78) for six bottles here and it’s safe to drink. Of course it’s safe to drink. Of course it’s clean – if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be here.”
That said, Bender added, purity was a strange concept. “The purest water would be distilled water that would be completely uninteresting to drink,” he said.
“If there is any such thing as purity in water then it’s probably what I’d consider to be less pure – contents that are natural, and non-harmful…that’s probably what gives that product a lot of its character,” Bender added.
Bender described the latter as a wider category than fine waters – anything commanding a price premium where the material (liquid) content constitutes more than just an insignificant fact is a premium product in some way.
“The fine water segment would be within the premium waters industry – the luxury segment of the premium waters industry,” he said.
In line with luxury came some sort of exclusivity in terms of distribution, he added. “I don’t think we’ll see fine waters, certainly not in my lifetime, sold at gas stations. Because the very concept of exclusivity doesn’t really work well with being ubiquitous – either you’re exclusive or you’re not.”
Despite the importance – agreed by all delegates in Dubai – of educating consumers about the finer points of water taste (with the help of restaurants and dedicated ‘water sommeliers’), Bender warned against placing too much emphasis on this differentiating factor.
“I think that if we over-emphasise taste, if we over-emphasise the medical implications [functional or health benefits], if we over-emphasize any of these things – we run the risk of making our industry ridiculous rather than respectable,” he said.
“I think we need to be modest, and accept that what we’re doing is delivering a product that is necessary for everyone that has the potential to give experiences,” Bender added.
Fine waters had the possibility to do what wine and beer could not, Bender said, albeit in a smaller niche market, by insisting on (in contrast to some beers, at least) terroir or place.
“Beer can be brewed anywhere in the world, but you can only take water from the place – staying close to that is a key feature of what we do,” he said.
“Also, most of the fine waters that we have today have a distinct personality – the product and the person, or people are very closely linked,” he added. If there’s no match, then there’s a problem, and you should consider your marketing strategy.”
Noting the growth of craft beer and beer’s progression from ubiquitous, alcoholic drink indistinguishable for most consumers to a product where specialized beers and tastes are vital, Bender insisted on the need to ‘frame’ the fine waters experience correctly to survive as a brand.
Although there are 7bn people in the world, Bender said that only so many of them were going to try your product once before it became widely known it wasn’t worth the money – so product packaging and presentation needed to correspond to the picture a fine waters brand built of it.
“It’s all about framing. We need to package the product in a way that people think about it as a premium product, turn on their taste buds, their eyes, and be open to particular experiences,” he said.
“You can package the same product in a commodity bottle, a cheap PET bottle, and people will drink it and not consider it anything special,” Bender added.
“Put it in different packaging. Suddenly people will sit down and realise that this is a fantastic product. So packaging matters – but we should remember that we’re not selling bottles, we’re selling water. The bottle is framing it’s not the product.”
While Bender believes that endorsements matter, he expressed bewilderment at what he described as the “very American” phenomenon of paying big bucks for celebrity endorsements.
“The fact that this actor – who isn’t renowned for their taste expertise – even though you’ve paid them a million to do it, and consumers know this – makes the product more attractive,” Bender said.
“It works, but somehow it makes me feel bad for the consumer…we’re [Iskilde is] avoiding that. I think we’ve been lucky – we’ve pursued endorsements from cooks, some of the best cooks in the world, some of the best water sommeliers,” he added.
“For me, the real endorsement we get is when we come to a restaurant, and we ask them to put the bottle on the table – they taste it, and rather than look at what George Clooney would do, very often they like what we do, and that to me is a real endorsement,” Bender said.