How brands can rethink the single use plastic water bottle

By Kathryn Jubrail, Partner, Mother Design

- Last updated on GMT

Rethinking bottled water could require a wholesale shift in business models. Pic:getty/blackjack3D
Rethinking bottled water could require a wholesale shift in business models. Pic:getty/blackjack3D

Related tags Plastic Water Bottled water Sustainability Recycling Packaging

The challenges for plastic water bottles are clear: their environmental impact is leading to a consumer backlash and even potential regulatory restrictions. But the future isn’t about a few brands moving into alternative packaging formats: it’s about reimagining the category at scale, says Kathryn Jubrail, partner at design studio Mother Design, in this guest article.

Plastic bottled water has never been so popular. Consumers are more likely to buy water in plastic bottles than any​ other format, 1 million bottles were consumed a minute globally in 2022​, and future predictions look buoyant.

But don’t be fooled. Water brands might think that they can only scale greater heights, but they’re approaching a cliff edge. The drop could be sharper and closer than many realise – and too few are preparing themselves.

The threat is regulatory and competitive. In the UK, we’ve seen plastic straws banned, plastic bags levied; and from the start of this month, everything from plates to balloon sticks have been restricted. It is only a matter of time until the spotlight lands on the plastic bottle.

Equally, a growing number of market entrants are bringing fresh ideas and new business models to the sector. They’re already stealing noticeable market share and the threat will not recede.

Brands should act right now. None of it will be easy. Nor will it be quick. It’s too simplistic to simply say that all single-use plastic should be banned; as it’ll reduce consumption of water and remove the convenience that consumers demand.

So instead, it’s how brands use creativity and innovation to do and be better for our planet, in a way that doesn’t compromise the experience for consumers or damage business. 

And there is much they can do. In fact, they could be part of an ambitious solution to reinvent the category for good. Here is how they can make a start.

Reimagining at scale

First, they need to use their clout to drive true awareness of the problem. For example, if 1 in 10 Brits refilled their bottle just once a week, we’d save about 340 million plastic bottles a year​ – so why are they still buying so much single use?

Smaller brands are already doing this – such as Cano Water urging Wimbledon to ‘break up’ with plastic this year. In adjacent sectors, Chewing gum brand Nuud, for example, highlights the blight of plastic in its mainstream competitors through its direct tagline ‘Chew Gum Not Plastic’ and all its messaging and design language.

Larger brand owners can’t shy away from urging such a shift in awareness. They need to acknowledge that this needs to be part of their innovation too.

It might also require a wholesale shift in business models.

Just as coffee establishments are increasingly rewarding reusable cups, could water brands come up with a model that avoids single use, yet offers the convenience and hygiene advantages of its current bottled offering? What could this look like on a global scale? For example, could water brands play a leading role in rolling out access to refill water stations on every street and destination?

Why not consider partnerships in creative ways, or move away from a product-centric to a more service-led approach? Other sectors, such as beauty and home cleaning, are increasingly experimenting with refill, D2C subscriptions and partnerships – from Ecover’s refill stations to The Bower Collective or Vanish teaming up with laundry service Oxwash.

Water brands have the additional challenge of selling something that people can essentially get elsewhere for free, so it’s even more important for them to think about what such partnerships or services could look like in the sector.

Selling the alternative

The key to any solution will be to make alternative options desirable. For example, Ocean Bottle highlights the greater social value of its refillable bottles to entice consumers. Its promise that every bottle sold – and refilled with the help of its app – funds the collection of thousands of ocean-bound plastic bottles not only encourages purchase but also continued use.

Others like Liquid Death or CanO Water sell an alternative to plastic bottles, using a can, but more than their format, their desire comes from a sense of being part of a movement, an attitude – a ‘lifestyle’. They have built multi-faceted brand worlds – tone of voice, visual assets, campaigns – that allow people to be part of something and express a distinct sentiment through their consumption choices.

Alongside making the alternative desirable, brands will also need to think about how to turn that desire into lasting behaviour change – both in what products people choose, but also around habits such as reuse and recycling.

Everyday brands are perfectly positioned to do this. They can use their reach and recognisability to drive adoption and change through innovative design – visual, communication, sensorial. Through clever use of slogan, tune or memorable prompts, underpinned by distinctive visual cues and assets, a nudge and eventual behaviour change can become part or people’s everyday to either buy different (i.e. not single use plastic) or to recycle their plastic bottle.  

Kathryn Jubrail

Take the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, Movember’s quest to highlight men’s health issues every year, or the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die​ – a highly effective Australian public service campaign to promote railway safety. What they all have in common are memorable slogans and distinctive assets that carry meaning, can be used and shared by consumers and keep the message front of mind.

Behaviour change is currently driven by the niche, but just imagine what mass change could happen if the sector’s big hitters used their heritage, reach, innovation and brand strategy to reimagine water’s future. There’s certainly no point in ignoring the inevitable – time to start future-proofing your brand.

Related news

Show more

Follow us


View more