Renewed focus on health helps drinking water market flow the luxury way

One of the emerging sub-segments is alkaline water, whose supposedly higher pH level — usually over 8.5 — means that it is similar to water in its purest form
Berkeley Springs is a tiny town nestled in the mountains of West Virginia, a scenic state located on the eastern side of the United States. It’s known for its mineral water springs and spas; at Berkeley Springs State Park, the warm waters flow at a constant temperature of 23.5 degree Celsius, drawing tourists from all around the country.

Every February, water samplers and enthusiasts head to the historic spa town to take part in the largest water-tasting competition in the world. This year’s “best bottled water” prize went to Hita no Homare Cosmo Water from Japan. Awards were given out in five more categories — from “best municipal water” to “best flavoured essence sparkling water”.

That there are prestigious annual awards for something as professedly uncomplicated and easily available as drinking water is a nod to the gains made by the bottled water industry in recent years. The class of “premium” drinking water, which promises abundant health benefits, has particularly benefited from the changes in how people view the hydration staple.

At home, where paying for any type of water — let alone the expensive kind — is generally scoffed at, the pandemic has offered local beverage companies the chance to acquire a foothold in the Indian market. New luxury water labels have been launched, while existing ones have reported a jump in sales, primarily owing to a renewed focus on health.

“Regular packaged drinking water, or RO water, filters away all essential micro nutrients, whereas natural spring water allows our body to use them effectively,” says Ankur Chawla, co-founder and CEO, Responsible Whatr, which comes from Solan in Himachal Pradesh and hit shelves in June. It has sold almost 120,000 cans so far.  

Why cans? “Indian consumers, especially after the pandemic, have become more conscious. They not only care about the product but also its impact on the environment in general,” says Chawla. A pack of six recyclable cans (500ml each) is available for Rs 305. 

Manufacturers claim their water is superior, aiding in better hydration, nutrition and metabolism. One of the emerging sub-segments is alkaline water, whose supposedly higher pH level — usually over 8.5 — means that it is similar to water in its purest form. “Mineral water is difficult to digest sometimes because of the high mineral content, whereas with RO water, it’s the opposite. Alkaline water combines the two,” explains Gaurav Nainani, founder of Alkalen.

Alkalen, which is bottled in Mumbai and sold as a “water-based electrolyte beverage”, has been growing 10 per cent month-on-month since July, with Nainani planning to enter four new cities in January, in addition to the nine the brand currently serves. The bulk of the business, however, is being driven by online, where customers have the option of choosing from different “subscription plans”. A one-time purchase (a pack of 12, 1,000ml each) costs Rs 720.

“Initially, it was difficult convincing people about the advantages of alkaline water,” says Ashish Bhatia of Malaki, another Mumbai-based brand, which entered the market three years ago. “With doctors emphasising on things like the importance of vitamin C, we have seen a surge in demand,” reveals Bhatia. In 2018, Bhatia made heads turn with Malaki Gold 24K Luxury Water, which came with edible gold flakes. Across all segments since February — apart from alkaline water, Malaki also houses teas and flavoured-waters — sales have increased 26 per cent.

While it may be imprudent to pass this off as just a health fad, it is worth noting that health experts are still divided over the superior properties of these waters. Most nutritionists agree that if your diet is deficient in certain nutrients, then alkaline water can offer the required electrolytes and minerals, but many are still sceptical about its long-term benefits.

Even so, water connoisseurs seem optimistic about their prospects.

In the US, the segment is worth $18.9 billion; globally, the premium bottled water market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 5.8 per cent during the forecast period 2020-2026, according to market research consultancy DataIntelo. In India, the bottled water segment has been growing at 18-19 per cent year-on-year, according to research firm Euromonitor. And while there are no figures for the premium category, industry insiders say that the trend is not just restricted to the hotel and restaurant space, but is also seeing an uptick among retail buyers. “Five years from now, more people will opt for alkaline water. And that’s how it will become more affordable as well. Low awareness cost means low pricing,” reckons Nainani.

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