[April 23, 2010]
There has been controversy about The Coca Cola Company’s continuing refusal to label its Dasani bottled water brand transparently—that is, as what it is: not natural spring water as the branding seems to suggest, but municipal tap water that Coke runs through a purification process.  The public water source for Dasani varies from region to region, but Coke has never claimed it is exotic.  
The obvious comparison is to Coke’s arch rival Pepsi, whose Aquafina brand has carried the words “Public Water Source” on its label since 2007.  That labeling change was widely reported as PepsiCo’s response to public pressure brought by the Boston-based watchdog organization Corporate Accountability International, as well as the on-going impact of a widely disseminated research paper from the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1999. 
Question is: would the label change make any difference to the consumers and sales of Dasani? It hasn’t noticeably hurt Aquafina, still the top-selling bottled water brand in the U.S. (Nestle is the overall market leader in the U.S. through its multiple brands, including Poland Springs and Perrier–which are natural spring water–and Pure Life, which is purified municipal water). Yet all this is against the backdrop of a decline of 2.5% in total U.S. bottled water sales last year and an overall slump in the carbonated soft drink market. 
This week I received an email previewing The Coca Cola Company’s annual shareholder’s meeting—in Duluth this year. On Thursday from the floor of the meeting, a shareholder who also works for Corporate Accountability International apparently raised the issue with Coke CEO Muhtar Kent. I have not seen a report of what he said.
What is WAT-AAH!?
Now allow me to make a leap. If you are a gmail user, you know that Google sells ads that appear as a subject line at the top of your inbox, always with a link to the advertiser’s website. Above my message about Coke’s Dasani brand, I saw an ad for something I hadn’t heard of before: WAT-AAH!
WAT-AAH! is a new (introduced end of 2008) brand of bottled water marketed to kids. The story behind its creation is a good one: a mom asked her 8-year old son why he didn’t like to drink water. His answer: “Water is boring.” So the mom, Rose Cameron, a marketing professional, set out to “create water ‘cool’ enough to convince kids to switch away from soda.” WAT-AAH!s mission (the brand name never appears without its exclamation point) is “healthy hydration” and “fighting obesity.” As their website announces: WAT-AAH! has no Sug-aah.
The WAT-AAH! website (drinkwataah.com) is a showplace of savvy marketing to kids and–for parents—it is impressively substantial, with layers of facts and research positioning the brand as the healthy alternative to soda and sweetened fruit drinks.
The product comes in four varieties—each with different attributes or additives: “Body” is sourced from a spring in the Catskills; “Brain”, “Bones” and “Energy” are all distilled water with, respectively, added electrolytes, magnesium or a “boosted level of oxygen in every bottle.”
This is a brand that has an answer to virtually every challenge: “…and for those concerned about our use of plastic, bear in mind that Wah-Taah! is not here to displace water (be it tap or filtered). In fact we are teaching kids to love the taste of pure, simple unadulterated water. Wat-aah! is here to displace sodas.” The bottles are recycling code #1, which, the website assures us, does not leach BPA bisphenol.
We are not told that number 1 plastic (polyethylene terephthalate or PET) does leach antimony, another endocrine disruptor. In some studies it appears to also leach phthalates, although industry disputes this claim. 
There is a further irony here: WAT-AAH! is based in New York City (the corporate name is Let Water Be Water, LLC). New York City’s tap water, sourced from large reservoirs upstate, is regarded as among the purest and best-tasting in the urban world.
Google’s algorithm made a connection between these two bottled water brands—and now so will I. Dasani is for adults who’ve been convinced that there’s something inadequate about purified tap water—even though it is purified tap water. WAT-AAH! is for kids who’ve been convinced there’s something ‘boring’ about products that aren’t packaged to be cool.
The sugar high from sodas is undoubtedly a hard thing to give up—and providing parents with a convincing antidote for their kids is something they can certainly be thankful for. We’ll see how well the strategy works: the plan is take WAH-TAAH! nationwide “in all key markets” in Fall 2010.
WAH-TAAH! is a product designed to ameliorate one threat—childhood obesity—while it exacerbates another by attempting to create a whole new market for plastic waste. Dasani has no such excuse.
And there is another important difference: transparency. Coke’s Dasani brand aspires to exotic allure and argues environmental friendliness through its marketing. Is it simply the pesky matter of its evasive labeling that makes it dishonest? There is a cynicism regarding Dasani that WAT-AAH! is making efforts to steer clear of.
But that doesn’t make it much easier to swallow.
1 Atlanta Journal Constitution “Advocacy Group Wants Municipal Source on Label of Coca Cola Company’s Dasani Water Brand” April 20, 2010 (accessed April 22, 2010).
2 The Coca-Cola Company: DASANI® Bottled Water Report as required by California SB 220 (2008) http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/citizenship/pdf/dasani_report.pdf (accessed April 22, 2010).
3 This has been a long-standing issue. In 2004 Coke was forced to temporarily pull Dasani off shelves in Britain, partly because of the “tap water” embarrassment, but more seriously when it was discovered that the product had become inadvertently contaminated with up to twice the legal limit of the carcinogen bromate. “Things Get Worse with Coke” The Guardian (London) March 20, 2004 www.guardian.co.uk (accessed April 22, 2010).
4 CBSNews.com 7/27/07; CNN.com 7/27/07 (accessed April 22, 2010).
5 NRDC “Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?”, 1999 http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp (accessed April 22, 2010).
6 Press Release, “The U.S. Liquid Refreshment Beverage Market Decline” Beverage Marketing Corporation, March 24, 2010 http://www.beveragemarketing.com/?section=pressreleases (accessed April 14, 2010).
7 Thanks to Tamara Adkins, toxicologist and Senior Researcher for EnvironmentalHealthNews.org for her insight into endocrine disruptors and plastic #1.