For the first five years of this millennium, my family had made a habit of spending a summer week in the Mecca that is New York City. During our 2002 trip, I walked into Dean & DeLuca's and spied Voss Water for the first time. The slim, straight-sided bottle with the large vertical logo and monochromatic palette immediately caught my eye, and I was soon on my way home with a half dozen bottles in my bag. Much to my wife's chagrin, I had of course purchased nothing else but the water—so I was soon on my way back to the store.
Since that day, I've been paying extra attention to the ultra-competitive category that is water. Because it is a very mature category, it really takes some effort to distinguish a product.
SEI first appeared to me a couple of years ago in a thruway convenience store along the interstate from Syracuse to Buffalo. Their simple, uncluttered approach to labeling immediately stood out because, well, they do not use a primary label. Instead, they emboss their product name along with the message to "Drink Water." Coupled with a custom flask shape that was easy to hold and that placed an emphasis on portability, they were the perfect impulse purchase for these stop-and-go thoroughfares.
SEI chose the flask style for a number of good reasons, the most relevant of which is said portability. Being able to put a bottle of water into a pants pocket or a car door or a purse was a must for their development team. The sleek, simple shape does that very well. Less apparent is that the shape is very stable and, unlike their round counterparts, a flask of SEI does not roll when tipped. Less apparent still is that it takes about 20% less physical space to store the same amount of water. Both Time and I.D. magazines have recognized the excellence of SEI's flask design.
Another product of great interest, also in a flask style, is Fred. The brainchild of cofounders Adam Gayner and Ariel Broggi, Fred is premium water with personality. "He" is, at the same time, both a counter culture and a cool approach to water. He is also generous in that he uses the capacity savings of his bottle style to give consumers more water—600 ml versus the conventional 500 ml.
Fred was launched in 2006, but his roots stretch back to 2001 when Gayner, fresh from his successful contributions to the all-natural method line of cleaning products, started to recognize that there was unclaimed white space in the premium water market. Bottle designs began in earnest in 2005 with a special emphasis not only on the flask style, but with particular attention paid to the shoulder radius. Similar to the Absolut bottle, Fred wants to be recognized by the form of his distinctive shoulder even if you can't see his label. The "humanizing" of water is unique to Fred, and he seems to be finding new friends including, among others, Michael Stipe and Kid Rock.
With some exception, designers for the water market take advantage of clear labels as part of a minimalist approach. Not so for Totally Organica, whose product line is all about color and taste. Robert Colt, an early investor and current CEO of Totally Organica carved out a new water niche when his product was launched in 2008 as the first to be certified by the USDA as organic. Aside from their bright, full shrink labels, unique flavors give Totally Organica its unique organic qualification and its claim to being "refreshing, hydrating, and great tasting."
Another product leveraging the flavor niche is Metromint, from SOMA Beverage. Offering an uncommon line of six mint-based waters, I taste-tested their product at last year's Fancy Food Show and really enjoyed the mint additions. For me, plain water—whether still or carbonated—loses my taste attention quickly. This wasn't the case with Metromint, whose flavor was hard to ignore as were the customized Metromint fleet of Honda Elements that were roving around New York City.
Two other products deserve mention here, but you may have a hard time finding them in the U.S. Antipodes, from New Zealand, is minimalist to the max. Not available in stores, the development team for Antipodes believes that the heroes of the table should be wine and food, not a bottle of water. In turn, they chose a "short and fat" shape and restrained themselves to only a logo and product description. Despite the aforementioned number of minimalist approaches, the result is very effective here as the bottle shape and bare bones typography evokes a product of days gone by.
The last product line for discussion, Tˆy Nant from Wales, is perhaps my favorite design (by the way, it's pronounced Tee-Nant) Tˆy Nant offers both still and carbonated varieties in well-known vivid cobalt blue and crimson red glass bottles, but it is their PET line and their Replenish lines that elevate them to an exceptional level.
Initially described as impossible to produce, the fluid bottle designs were conceived by Welsh designer Ross Lovegrove. His work gives me the same feeling of awe that Frank Gehry's work for Wyborowa Vodka did—singular, uncompromising, and stunning to behold. Tˆy Nant translates loosely into English as "the house by the stream." I would add that their house rocks.