While Fiji Water cannot buy positive press these days, its island-nation namesake still reaps the branding rewards.
It seems Fiji Water is never short of a critic. Last month’s New Zealand Herald article “Does Fiji Water leave a bad taste?” is the most recent acidic critique of Fiji’s famous bottled water brand. The article cites a number of online sources that slam Fiji Water’s quality, environmental and social responsibility claims, leading writer Shelley Bridgeman to ask, “Is Fiji water so tainted with moral, political and economic issues that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of whoever drinks it?”
The article—and those like it—buckets the pristine imagery of the Fiji brand, saying that it doesn’t match the less-than-idyllic local realities. But such critique is itself tainted with impurities. And besides, given the massive hit New Zealand’s ‘100% pure’ branding has taken from recent infant dairy formula scandals, New Zealand commentators don’t exactly inhabit the moral high ground when it comes to firing volleys at Brand Fiji.
Much of the criticism such reportage levels at Fiji Water relates to the apparent waste and greed that has fueled the product’s unlikely success. Fiji, we are told, is a developing country, where people suffer terrible water conditions while bottled Fiji Water fetches a premium at high-end New York restaurants. Fiji Water, we are told, is wasteful, with its plastic packaging produced in Chinese factories thousands of kilometers from Fiji, which, in turn, is just as far from its North American markets.
According to this line of criticism, Fiji’s particular economic and geographic circumstances set Fiji Water apart from competitors Evian, Perrier and others in a really bad way.
This is difficult to swallow.
Despite their environmental claims, all the big luxury bottled water brands possess worldwide supply and distribution chains that produce massive carbon footprints. Perrier is owned by Nestlé, a global behemoth with well-documented social responsibility baggage in some of the world’s poorest countries. Evian’s marketing campaigns have attracted much controversy, and its consumers ridiculed each time they are asked, “What is ‘Evian’ spelt backwards?”
And yet, such reports single out Fiji Water for special criticism.
It’s a critique informed by a post-colonial perspective common among the special interest publications that appear to have a particular problem with Fiji Water. Of these, Mother Jones’ “Spin the Bottle” is the best known, with Superculture’s “An IP Colony: A short story” a significant other. They paint the company—owned by Los Angeles-based billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick—as a present-day mercantile capitalist plunderer of native gold. It is a story of exploitation, of rich American entrepreneurs ripping off a poor nation in order to profit from rich American consumers. An enticing narrative it may be, but it’s a narrow and misleading one.
On principle, one may question the value of the bottled water industry, not least because its developed-world markets also tend to enjoy access to clean tap water. But whatever its moral worth, the fact is that millions of the world’s most affluent and educated people spend billions each year to drink the bottled over the tapped version.
It’s their choice. And in the US, deft marketing (including product placement in The Sopranos, 24 and Desperate Housewives) have led to Fiji Water commanding prices up to three times that paid for domestic water. It is the envy of marketeers the world over.
There is a widely acknowledged reciprocity in branding between product and place of origin. It’s called mutual image transference. In the case of New Zealand, the ‘100% pure’ brand both benefits—and benefits from—the reputation of key kiwi exports like infant milk formula. It’s a similar story in Fiji. A 2012 NZ Aid report, for instance, states that Fiji Water has done much to promote the brand of ‘Fiji’ globally, even if many of its consumers don’t even know where Fiji is.
In lining their own pockets, it would appear that the Resnicks have also been doing Fiji a favor.
Whatever misgivings one may have about Fiji Water’s environmental and ethical credentials, it’s no worse than its global competitors, and is arguably better. The international notoriety of Fiji Water is good for Fiji, increasing brand recognition of the country in potential markets for other exports, including tourism. Ultimately, Fiji benefits from association with its famous bottled water.
This is a good thing for a country that, as Bridgeman takes pains to remind us, is ‘developing.’ And all the more reason why the New Zealand Herald would have done well to publish a more balanced perspective.