top of page
  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Water - the future for 'proper' sustainability brands?

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

I never thought about water much

But I should have been paying more attention. It's at the forefront of how we have to rewire the way we think about - and brand - resources.

We've been developing brand strategy for water in a region where it's scarce (the desert) and getting scarcer. And where demand for the stuff is on an ever increasing trajectory as population grows, industry develops and domestic agriculture becomes more strategically important.

Water is said to be the most important resource on the planet in this century. But we tend to take it for granted. Turn the tap, there it is. But that miracle - fresh and abundant clean water for all - is getting ever harder to deliver. Especially in the desert.

Brand and water

The role of a brand for water (at a country level - I'm not talking about Evian) is fascinating - the opposite of the brand-to-flog-stuff.

There is a globally widespread misconception that water - and the delivery of it - is somehow a "utility". That water is a "commodity" and that what matters for a water business is unobtrusive and fault free service for all at modest and uncontroversial pricing.

But in a world of 8 billion people, where most of the population growth is in hot places, coupled with climate change and energy intensive industry and agriculture that "utility" version of water won't (um) wash.

Water matters - a lot.

So the job for brand in water is going to be the job for brand in all sustainability. And it's groundbreaking (but also really tough). Why?

Because if you're responsible for water you don't want people to consume more, you want them to use less. And if you're in water starved places - of which there are many, especially around the Gulf region and Africa - then you need people to "value" water so that they pay enough for it. Which in most water starved places is a LOT more, maybe 10X or 20X current pricing.

But....for pretty much all of us in every country on the planet we are somehow attuned to the idea that water is not only abundant (it won't run out) but also that it is more or less free. It falls from the sky and comes up from the ground. We even "spend money like water".

But water isn't limitless and it isn't "free" - getting clean water to people costs money and requires ever more ingenuity and investment in technology.

So how do you get people to value - more - something they already have?

By a very long measure we don't pay enough for water. In some of these water starved countries (Kuwait for example) water is so heavily subsidised that the revenue barely covers 8% of the cost.

And if the price of something is too low then it tends to get used unsparingly. Whilst there's a lot of angst about the vast quantities of water consumer by agriculture, it's also true that per capita usage of water in hot places with low water tariffs is super high. So paying too little for water means that it gets used not as a scarce resource but as an abundant one. Walk the pavements of Riyadh or Dubai (if you can find a pavement) and you'll see cafes with water misters where in cold countries you'd see outdoor heaters. You'll see pricey water being sprayed around and instantly evaporated.

In places like Qatar this leads to per capita daily consumption numbers around 500 litres per person per day. In Saudi Arabia maybe 250. In Scotland maybe 150. The target level should be closer to 110 litres per person per day (if you are building a house in the UK it has to be designed for that level of usage).

This doesn't mean every Qatari is having a bath in a swimming pool every day - these numbers mask other ills such as leaky pipes in water networks as well as water leakage inside houses which were never constructed with pipework to cope with 24 hours every day of constant water pressure.

But water still gets sprayed around as if it doesn't matter. If it has been piped several hundred kilometres and then desalinated that's some expensive car wash. This isn't just a public attitude - it's institutional. In Morocco Government attempts to get locals to use water sparingly are completely undermined by the liberal drenching of golf courses in the hope of attracting tourists.

So the role for the national water brand is to get people - everyone - to value something they more or less take for granted. And that they believe is already freely available to them. And that they already have. That's tough.

The politics of pricing

Policymakers are rightly a little bit scared about charging more. Water is a fundamental and for many seen as a right, something they are entitled to. Part of life. Being asked to pay a heck of a lot more for something you kind of believe you already own can quickly lead to unrest. So raising tariffs without a lot of disquiet is an extremely delicate trick.

Look a bit further and it's easy to see how water (or its scarcity) could lead to conflict between countries. Groundwater, rivers and lakes cross national boundaries. So when water starts to run out countries start wondering how they can get hold of and keep hold of more of the stuff. It is often said that the next war will be fought over water, and it is easy to see in places like Jordan or Ethiopia how water (the absence of, or the hoarding of) could lead to a lot of trouble.

At a rational level we do all know that water is not limitlessly abundant. And can not be free. We know that getting clean, sustainable water to everyone must cost a lot. It requires technology and networks that wear out. Some of the technologies (such as desalination) have environmental knock on effects (pumping brine back into the ocean screws up a lot of marine life) and are - long run - unsustainable.

But we just don't think about it very much. Which is where the brand comes in.

Water and sustainability brands

The water brand has a whole different set of objectives: to help people not just value water more (and pay more for it), but also use less of it; to feel that to save water is for collective benefit of society, somehow a duty, and to overturn our very deep rooted ideas that water is somehow limitless and free forever.

This challenge for water brands is we believe where "proper" sustainability branding is headed. As we develop Good Growth, I become more and more convinced that the business of brand has lost its way. Somewhere in the last 50 years it has become unquestioned that "brands" are simply about flogging stuff, and not a mark of origin.

In the world of mainstream sustainability this idea (that brands are about flogging stuff) means that sustainability is treated as yet another marketing message - just another reason to buy more stuff. (This is why there's so much focus on nonsense certification schemes and recently a bandwagon of bullshit going into traceable supply chains).

But injecting a bit of green into business as usual is not *proper* sustainability. It completely ducks the real challenge for sustainability brands:

get people to use less and pay more

Industrialised food is way too cheap (in price) and way too costly (to the planet). Fast fashion ravages the environment whilst flogging billions of throwaway t-shirts for pennies. But you will not see food brands saying food is too cheap, nor fashion brands saying that we really don't need 2 billion T-shirts a year (each requiring 766 gallons of water to make BTW) and priced in the single digit dollars.

The language of brands in conventional "flog stuff" mode just won't allow for "use less and pay more" messaging. Which is why the sustainability brands of the near future will be incredibly disruptive - overturning pretty much every convention in brand world, lifting the lid on origin, where stuff comes from and how it gets to you, above all exposing the true cost of the product you buy.

So I encourage you to think more about water - its value, its scarcity - even as you look out of the window and see it fall from the sky. Because how you get everyone everywhere to treat water as if it were money, to value it for its scarcity, is the kind of challenge that every serious sustainability brand is going to encounter.

If brands are going to be a good thing - and not a relic of destructive rampant consumerism - this is the trick they have to learn. We have a long way to go.


bottom of page