Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

One of the joys that came my way from serving many years in the research trenches around the world was having a front row seat to history. In hundreds of investigations of all sizes and shapes, I got to see up close how decisions got made and how things evolved over time. When we look back at things we now take for granted, we can easily see how we got to where we are today. Here’s a tale from our archives about how one company nearly upended an industry but didn’t because they shot the messenger.

Once upon a time, bottled water was a commodity sold mostly in frosted plastic gallon jugs exactly like the ones milk came in. It was a cutthroat business with very thin margins and no real differentiation between products. The brands that sold the most were whichever ones were on sale. Looking for an edge where there was none, a beverage company executive asked us to see what we could learn about bottled water consumers’ perceptions and behaviors.

In what later became an MBA school case study, we found bottled water buyers scoffed at the security blankets industry insiders clung to so dearly

<Sidebar: This disease – thinking from the inside-out –  afflicts insiders across every product and service category I have ever studied. The most stunning visual example of inside-out thinking was the company that installed the giant logosculpture at their headquarters so that it would appear correct to those inside the building, but backwards to visitors and on the cover of their annual report.>

Our bottled water client told us the words distilled, purified, and ionized said “purity” to consumers

They were shocked when they listened from behind the mirror as study subjects told us those words were nothing more than cheap tricks companies used to avoid saying “treated tap water.” When we asked how they defined purity, bottled water buyers told us a different story. They said you could tell water was pure when it was completely clear and had no visual imperfections. That means shoppers believe the clear water they can see inside the clear bottle is purer than water they can’t see.

You can see through it 

We suggested our client could shake up the industry and gain first-mover advantage by packaging their water in clear bottles so consumers could see the purity for themselves

Their reaction? They raged at our ignorance and stupidity for recommending they spend five extra cents a bottle for clear plastic. Then they threw us out of their office, infuriated at having wasted their research dollars on outsiders who had clearly failed to properly understand how their business worked.

Twenty years after our findings about purity, a National Institutes of Health study on perceptions of water quality was published

In it, the authors told us people choose bottled waters based upon their subjective assessments of purity. The authors cited a study by Andy Opel, called Constructing Purity: Bottled Water and the Commodification of Nature. In it, he told us the marketing machine has cranked out new ways of describing branded, marketed bottled water (micro-filtered, reverse osmosis, ozonated) in attempts to stake claims of superior purity. My favorite is “electrodialysis reversal,” which sounds more like a painful hospital procedure than something I’d want to drink. Opel also tells us the labels on bottled waters are the most prevalent source of brand image for many consumers and talks about how the art and text are mostly sleight-of-hand.

Our opinions of things are influenced by how easily our brain is able to grasp them

Processing fluency is what scientists call this cognitive bias. I found a study on ScienceDirect that showed bottled water was perceived to be at its purest when it had a foreign brand name that was short and easy to pronounce. I’m guessing no one over at “electrodialysis reversal” ever read this study. Author Andrew Postman says ads and labels drive home the perception of purity with images of pristine glaciers and crystal-clear mountain springs. The bottled water industry still sells purity by processes, labels, and names. Today in the U.S. alone, bottled water is a $20 billion industry, clear bottles are nearly universal, and now you know how it happened.

Our clients suffered from the myopia of expertise

It happens in every industry. Experts are so deep into their products that they make micro-minor distinctions that are of no use to the rest of us.

Want an opinion about your research from a messenger who has been shot many times? I’m your guy.  Or you can watch this Johnny Nash music video by clicking here.

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