Priceonomics

Even if they could afford it, many people would balk at the thought of paying $10,000 for a sandwich. And yet the majority of Americans pay a similar markup, essentially, for a bottle of water.

Americans weren’t always so open-minded about opening their wallets for H20. Mere decades ago, they would have laughed at paying astronomical markups for a liquid that flows freely, and usually safely, from their taps at home.

That all began to change in the 1970s, with a crazy idea from a Frenchman who wanted Americans to buy fizzy water in green glass bottles shaped like bowling pins. 

His company was Perrier, and its carefully constructed, impeccably timed advertisements paved the way for one of the greatest feats (or scams, depending on whom you ask) in marketing history.

Perrier’s campaign created a massive new market for the American beverage industry, and it still serves as a playbook for how to convince people to pay for water. At the same time, it does not fully account for what remains an even greater mystery: the enduring appeal of bottled water. 

Whether they choose fizzy Perrier, flat Poland Spring, or a different label, Americans are guzzling more bottled water than ever before. And in an era defined by speed and convenience, they show no signs of slowing down.

“Earth’s First Soft Drink”

Gustave Leven had an idea: Convince Americans that they wanted to drink Perrier.

The chairman of Source Perrier, Leven had purchased the languishing French company in 1947, after he “concluded that if the [local] people of Vergeze could sell a natural mineral water for three times the price of wine, then the company must have remarkable potential,” according to a company history. 

“It was a well-known name with no sales,” Leven later said in explaining his decision.

For the first three decades of the 1900s, Perrier supplied Buckingham Palace with “the champagne of waters.” After its founder, British entrepreneur St. John Harmsworth, died in 1933, and later, with the onset of World War II, production all but collapsed.

Under Leven, it again began to flourish. Thanks to mass advertising, sales grew fifteen-fold between 1946 and 1952, from 10 million bottles to 150 million. By the mid-1970s, Perrier was the top sparkling water in France. 

Soon, Leven set his sights across the Atlantic. In the United States, elite restaurants and hotels in New York and Los Angeles were already selling Perrier. But Leven wanted more. 

Photo credit: Maurizio Pesce

In 1976, Perrier opened an office in New York. Leven shared his scheme with hard-charging American marketing executive Bruce Nevins, who had recently left Levi Strauss. In those early days, Leven’s vision for Perrier had more skeptics than believers. 

The hindrance seemed obvious: Who would pay for water when they could get it for free? At the time, the only water people bought came primarily in the form of jugs delivered to homes and offices for use in coolers. 

Perrier would not change this paradigm, many predicted. McKinsey, for one, carried out a study concluding that the sparkling French water did not have a viable future in the United States.

Even Nevins needed some time to believe that Americans could be persuaded to pay for fancy water. But once he came around to the idea, he rolled out a campaign that would change Perrier — and water in America — forever.

Perrier’s American transformation began with television ads in the spring of 1977. They were straightforward, but ear-catching and eye-catching. The company spent an estimated $2.5 million to $5 million on the campaign. (That’s roughly $9.8 million to $19.7 million in today’s dollars. For comparison, in 2001, as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola began competing for market share, they spent $14 million and more than $20 million to promote Aquafina and Dasani, respectively.)

“More quenching, more refreshing, and a mixer par excellence,” intoned the rich baritone of Orson Welles in a Perrier advertisement dated 1979, as a bubbling stream cascaded from a green bottle and swirled into a clear goblet. 

“Naturally sparkling, from the center of the earth,” the actor continued. He wrapped up the ad with a single word, the “r”’s perfectly French: “Perrier.”