Tap vs. bottled

DC Water is trying to transform cheap, environmentally friendly tap water into a powerful brand

in the battle between tap and bottled water, bottled water usually has all the zest. Perrier, Poland Spring, Fiji, Glacier—these companies reel consumers in with big-budget advertising campaigns promoting crystal clear waters from exotic locales all over the world. It’s not easy to counter those images if you’re running the local public water authority. But one tap provider is fighting back. The DC Water and Sewer Commission, the public authority that provides tap water to the nation’s capital, changed its name to DC Water in 2010 and launched a campaign to transform tap water into a product that is just as hip and exciting as its bottled brethren.

Other water and sewer commissions—including many in Massachusetts—strongly encourage local tap water consumption. But DC Water goes further by actively trying to sell its customers on the idea. DC Water believes a just-the-facts approach in its struggle against bottled water isn’t enough. The agency has coupled its appeal to the mind with an appeal to the senses, coining the logo “dc water is life” and sticking that phrase on trucks, websites, and publications across the city. Its utility trucks have become moving billboards with the message “put down the plastic” on their side.

“There are very few products that speak for themselves and don’t need somebody speaking for them,” says George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water since 2009. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School who began his career in Boston, practicing law at Ropes & Gray, Hawkins has become the voice of DC Water. He speaks all over the district, preaching a common-sense message of environmentalism and handing out reusable water bottles with DC Water emblazoned on the side.

Hawkins says tap is on top relative to bottled water in terms of quality, cost, and environmental impact. He says DC Water analyzes and publicly releases the results of thousands of tests each year on the water it supplies to its customers, while bottled water companies are not required to disclose their water quality testing results. He says bottled water costs 100 times more than tap water.  What’s more, he says, tap water is delivered by pipe directly to homes and businesses, while bottled water often is shipped hundreds or thousands of miles in containers that 75 percent of the time end up in landfills, waterways, or discarded as roadside litter.

Hawkins’s PR campaign for tap water is part of a broader effort to reassure District of Columbia residents that the city’s water is not only safe but a bargain, even as water and sewer rates have gone up by more than 50 percent over the last few years. Hawkins’s predecessors often hid operational problems at the agency, and between 2002 and 2005 minimized the dangers of lead leaching from pipes into the water, a problem that was later corrected. Hawkins has been more upfront about problems that need to be addressed and the cost of addressing them. Two big priorities are building massive tunnels to capture polluted storm-water runoff and replacing aging pipes. DC Water purchases its water from the US Army Corps of Engineers Washington Aqueduct, a federal agency responsible for treating water drawn from the Potomac River.

“It is fundamental that people trust and rely on our product,” says Hawkins. “While the cold, clear, clean water coming out of the tap may speak for itself, the cost differentials are not so obvious. I think that the customer base needs to understand the efforts that we put in on their behalf.”

Sarah Neiderer, DC Water’s marketing coordinator, says the agency’s campaign isn’t expensive, costing about $180,000 so far for signage, uniform patches for 1,000 employees, vehicle decals, and the cost of shifting to the new dcwater.com domain. Because the decals are displayed on the company’s own trucks, websites, and publications, the entire process is fairly inexpensive. She says the goal of the agency’s campaign is not to boost sales, but to increase public awareness about the importance and value of public water.

“There is absolutely no financial incentive behind our tap water promotion,” says Neiderer. “We only hope to overcome any misconceptions about the water and we want the public to trust and be able to rely on the tap water here in Washington because it is safe and clean.”

DC Water is also trying to counter bottled water’s convenience factor. Through a partnership with TapIt, a nonprofit network of restaurants and cafes that provide the public with access to free tap water, DC Water is trying to make tap water as easy to use when consumers are out and about as bottled water. TapIt has more than 160 participating locations in the District of Columbia where people can fill reusable water bottles. The establishments are easy to locate through tapitwater.com, iPhone apps, city partner websites, downloadable maps, and lime green TapIt stickers pasted to business windows.

“We have very high name recognition in the district for the program, with many regular users,” says Will Schwartz, TapIt’s campaign director. “It has had the effect of letting people know that they can and should drink tap water in DC because it is easy, safe, and convenient.”

It’s unclear whether the DC Water campaign is having an impact in the District of Columbia because there is no reliable tracking of bottled water usage there. But Hawkins is convinced the campaign is having a positive impact on his customers’ views of tap water.  He says other cities and states could benefit by mounting similar campaigns. “A campaign like this is doable anywhere and well worth the payoff,” he says. “A win-win.”

Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massa­chusetts Water Resources Authority, which serves as the wholesale distributor of water to 61 metropolitan Boston communities, is not convinced. The MWRA regularly reports on water quality to its municipal customers and their residents, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves.
“We’re not going to go out and pay for advertising because, frankly, our product speaks for itself,” says Laskey. “I would say our approach is a bit more subtle.”

Laskey’s strongest personal pitch for MWRA water probably occurred in 2005, when he participated in a blind taste test sponsored by the Boston Globe, pitting MWRA water against several bottled waters. A very nervous Laskey was relieved when he and his fellow judges found either no difference between the MWRA and the bottled waters or that the MWRA water was superior.

“Regionally, locally, and nationally, we have been recognized as some of the best drinking water in the country,” Laskey says. “We pass with flying colors.”

Now, when MWRA officials are invited to speak to groups, they bring along a mobile drinking fountain allowing those in the audience to do their own taste tests. Laskey says the key when comparing bottled and tap water is making sure the conditions are the same for both. “Refrigeration and cooling of water improves the taste,” says Laskey. “People will compare a glass of tap water to the bottle they retrieved from a cooler. If you like cool, crisp water, get a pitcher and put it into the refrigerator.”

While Laskey is reluctant to make a more aggressive pitch, Massachusetts would seem to be receptive to a tap water campaign. Bay State residents tend to be environmentally conscious and concerns about the environmental impact of transporting bottled water appear to be growing.

Town meeting members in Concord voted in late April to outlaw the sale of all bottled water containers of a liter or less within the municipality’s borders. The tally was 403-364. Anyone caught selling bottled water when the measure takes effect next year will first be given a warning, but a second offense will be accompanied by a fine of $25, while any subsequent offenses will carry a $50 fine.

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Schwartz, the TapIt campaign director, said his organization has had little success so far in Boston because there is no official campaign pushing for tap water usage. While there are 168 TapIt locations in Wash­ington, there are only four in Boston. Even that figure may overstate the program’s support. A manager at Flour Bakery and Cafe, whose two outlets account for half of the Boston restaurants listed on the TapIt website, said that chef and owner Joanne Chang didn’t know about the initiative and wasn’t aware the restaurants were listed.

Massachusetts residents may lean green, but the effort by DC Water suggests that alone is not always enough. In nature, water may seek its own level. In commerce, reversing the public thirst for bottled versions of it may require a push from public officials and policy makers.