In 2022, the Statista Global Consumer Survey asked American adults what beverages they drank most regularly. Was it carbonated soft drinks? Coffee? Tea? Alcoholic drinks? For 63% of the population, the answer was bottled water. Coffee and soft drinks followed with 57% and 56%. Surprising, right? When asked why they chose to spend money on bottled water over other forms such as tap, Americans gave two main reasons: taste and contamination concerns.

The origins of bottled water

Early in the American 19th century, drinking mineral water and even bathing in it became fashionable. This cued the entrepreneurs to begin their journey of finding cheaper ways of producing glass bottles. Selling the bottles came down to simple marketing. Bottled water companies claimed that their water provided a variety of health benefits.

Poland Spring, for example, claimed that their water could treat kidney-related health issues. Meanwhile, other mineral waters companies also claimed to cure a variety of diseases and symptoms. Soon, bottled water was thought to cure anything related to the liver, kidneys, seasickness, and fevers. With today’s information on the importance of staying hydrated, it’s clear how some of these companies could claim the benefits of drinking water. With time, as bottle manufacturing became more efficient and easier to distribute, American consumption increased. Americans came to trust the safety and benefits of bottled water over the questionable systems of their urban water.

A change in marketing strategies

When chlorine began being added to municipal water to make it safer for consumption, it became difficult for bottled water companies to advertise their water. They could no longer rely solely on the marketing that their water was safer and healthier than urban water systems. Bottled water consumption dramatically decreased, and even the largest water bottle brands had to change their marketing strategy.

In the late 1970s, Perrier (originally a French brand of sparkling natural spring water), served their water in distinctive green bottles only in high-end restaurants. With this image of luxury, Perrier took to TV advertising for marketing to the American population. By emphasizing Perrier’s French lineage and premium prices, the American people were encouraged to purchase Perrier’s bottled water to obtain and express social status. Additional emphasis on the healthy nature of water over alcoholic drinks and soft drinks, which were also popular then, further encouraged the increased consumption of water.

Tap water safety is still under skepticism

In the 1900s, public drinking water occasionally caused illness outbreaks because of contaminants present in the water. When thousands became ill with any outbreak, the American public gradually steered toward reliance on bottled water. By the time municipal water supplies confirmed that the water was safe to drink, many were distrustful of it. Despite bottling companies having their own share of contamination outbreaks, the public had already come to trust bottled water more than municipal water.

This trust of bottled waters and distrust of the safety of tap water still stands today.

While the majority of Americans are confident that their tap water is safe to drink, there are variations depending on race and income. In 2016, Water Polls found that minority groups and lower-income Americans are much more hesitant to trust that their tap water is safe. More than half of white Americans trust their water, less than 40% black Americans and less than 30% of Hispanic Americans trust their municipal water. Meanwhile, 60% of people with a 6-digit income were confident in their water but less than 40% of people making less than $50,000/yr were certain that their tap water was safe to drink.

While most of the population trusts that their tap water is safe to drink, less than half of the population doesn’t trust their municipal water. So, while water safety concerns is not the top reason, it is one of the top reasons for the increased usage of bottled waters.

Taste, Benefits, and Convenience

For some people, it has nothing to do with the safety of their drinking water. They simply prefer the taste of bottled water. Not to mention there is a larger market for the different tastes and enhancers offered in bottled water. Water manufacturers sell flavored waters that add a pleasant experience to otherwise bland water (by adding carbon, juices, herbs, etc.). They also sell nutritional waters, by adding vitamins and proteins and marketing them as energy waters and wellness waters.

Plastic bottles and cans are also incredibly popular. Plastics and thin metals are much lighter than glass, making carrying and transporting water much more convenient for daily use. So from a practical standpoint, where water is available on the go and can be easily discarded, bottled water is the perfect go-to.

Whether bottled water is a product of clever and effective advertising or the public desire for convenience and pursuit of healthier drinks, bottled water will continue to be the most popular beverage in American culture for decades to come.