Could bottled water firms do more now that summer is here?

Could bottled water firms do more now that summer is here?

After six disappointing summers, the UK is finally enjoying a healthy - and long overdue - dose of sunshine. A perfect time, then, for the bottled water companies to make hay, yes? Sadly, Annette Farr feels, this opportunity may be passing them buy.

It's mid-summer, and the UK has been having some fine hot sunny weather, escalating to heatwave status and culminating in a Met Office health warning last week. Hydration is both key and topical. Further, summertime sporting fixtures have seen massive evidence of sportsmen and women slaking their thirsts from water bottles.

Disappointing then, when contacting the UK's Natural Hydration Council (NHC) to get a fix on what its plans are to promote bottled water and hydration, I find that it takes four days before I am able to talk to Ian Hall, the trade body's director of communications. With every likelihood that journalists might - literally - be thirsty for topical stories, this simply isn't good enough.

But then I shouldn't be that surprised. It's only indicative of how the UK bottled water industry has signally failed on the public relations front of late. It has been impotent, unable to handle the backlash dished out by a media still keen to put the boot into bottled water without ever attempting a reasoned, balanced argument.

So, flying the flag for bottled water, here goes. First, it's not a case of tap versus bottled water, it's a case of consumers preferring to drink water that has not been chlorinated or undergone any disinfection process. (My Thames tap water in Southern Oxfordshire, is not crystal clear – it has a cloudy appearance before settling and doesn't have as fresh a taste as the bottled water I choose to buy.) Bottled water is a consumer refreshment choice. No more, no less.

Second, plastic bottles, the bête-noire of the anti-bottled water brigade. Thousands of other drinks come packaged in plastic. Why single out bottled water as the arch villain, while the industry has been more than proactive when it comes to lightweighting, using recycled plastic, and examining and adopting - especially in the US - compostable plastic. In the UK, reduced energy use coming from ‘green’ sources and a range of other tactics have all ensured that this is one of the most sustainable businesses in the country.

Third, the environment; natural mineral water and spring water producers, more than any other category of soft drinks, actually protect and nurture the land from their catchment areas. It's only common sense, but they do more, such as obtaining Soil Association Organic certification and, in the case of Ty Nant, embarking on a tree-replanting programme, to turn 200 acres of land from acidic pine forest into indigenous broadleaf woodland.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the US has not been immune to the bottled water backlash. But producers there have an authoritative organisation - the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) - to publicise and, when necessary, defend its members.

IBWA has a track record of good, solid campaigning. This year, it has mounted a vigorous rebuttal to anti-bottled activists who produced a YouTube video entitled 'The Story of Bottled Water', countering their misleading statements. It then went on to produce its own videos.

Despite their long-winded titles - 'Bottled Water’s Environmental Corporate Social Responsibility', and 'The Good Stewards of the Environment' - each engagingly highlights the actions taken by bottled water companies to protect the environment for future generations and the steps that said firms have taken to protect natural resources.

In addition, the IBWA took part in National Drinking Water Week held in May promoting the message that all types of drinking water, both bottled water and tap water, contribute to better hydration for all Americans. Latterly, it has endorsed a Material Recovery Programme to promote recycling in local communities.

Meanwhile, in the UK the bottled water debate is being muddied even further with some in the media questioning whether we need to drink the benchmark 1.5 litres a day to keep hydrated. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), in its review 'Hydration and Health', declares firmly that you do not need to drink eight glasses of water in addition to other drinks. All drinks, says the BNF, provide fluid intake, with even food providing on average 20% of our total water intake. Some foods have a high water content, especially fruits and vegetables, which are usually more than 80% water.

But, crucially, when it comes to choice of fluid intake, the BNF notes that water is a great choice because it delivers fluid without adding calories or potentially damaging teeth.

There are so many positive messages to get across to consumers when it comes to hydration and water. If the Juice Doctor can mount a witty campaign urging people to frequently check the colour of their urine and setting the nation a goal to ‘keep it light' - following new research which has uncovered habitual dehydration among 96% of the UK’s office workers – then why can't an industry umbrella organisation do the same?

Ian Hall, a respected industry veteran, who took on the role of NHC's director of communications in January, is confident that bottled water will succeed in delivering its core messages on hydration, obesity and sustainability. He says the NHC is keeping the 'you ought to drink more water' as a slogan which underpins its core beliefs, although there are no plans to go back into summer advertising.

Last year, the campaign antagonised others in the soft drinks industry, which took exception to the message claiming that drinking water was healthier than other soft drinks.

Meanwhile, the NHC is consolidating its programme, particularly with regard to hydration, obesity and science-based research, with its panel of independent academics. The results of such research, undertaken by Kings College, London, will be published this autumn. It will have taken the NHC two years to deliver on this original premise. Activity, then, will be stepped up in the second half of this year which includes a much-needed relaunched website.

Hall maintains that the NHC's plans to change negative publicity into positive publicity is now in a “neutral” phase. He reports that membership is building and that it has good relations with the British Soft Drinks Association. While the British Bottled Water Producers, whose members comprise smaller UK operators, have yet to be contacted, Hall says this will happen.

I hope so. Come on guys, get your collective heads around a table and work to the common good of delivering imaginative initiatives which inspire consumer confidence and some positive column inches.