Customers and Bottled Water: It’s the Coverup Not the Crime

Advertising Age presents Martin Lindstrom, at Coca Cola’s home in Atlanta, in his video:

Watering Down the Coke Brand?

Admitting the Source of Bottled Water

ATLANTA (BRANDFlash) — It’s surprising how just three letters — "PWS" — can generate such angst throughout an industry as large and savvy as the North American beverage business. But the issue of publicly admitting that bottled water comes from a "Public Water Source" is a huge one for marketers such as Coke. The concern, of course, is that if the consumers know those expensive bottles of water come from the same public reservoirs as tap water they’ll cease buying them. But, in fact, similar experiences in other categories show that consumers will not easily abandon products that have become as much of a habit as bottled water.

Lindstrom talks about Coke’s effort to introduce Dasani in the UK as a pure, pristine water. It’s a message that didn’t go over well when the truth came out (PWS), then took a second hit from a bottling contaminant scandal.

Lindstrom’s tone is bemused. And rightfully so.  As businessmen and politicians are continually rediscovering—it’s the cover-up that hurts you, not the crime. Think Nixon. Jeff Skilling. Larry Craig. OJ.  Monicagate.  Rigas. Mark Foley.  Corvair. Ted Haggard. Dan Rather.  Bhopal.  It’s endless.

And yet—as Lindstrom accurately reports, “The [marketers’] concern… is that if the consumers know those expensive bottles of water come from the same public reservoirs as tap water they’ll cease buying them.”

I know! I’ve got an idea! Let’s just shade the truth a bit.  Not a flat out lie, of course.  Just repositioning.  Images, not words.  Suggestions, hints, juxtapositions, transference, intonations.  Nothing illegal.  No lies, of course.  After all, what do you take us for?

It is shockingly hard for most of us to just tell the truth.  Maybe marketers have just a little harder time than the rest of us?  Maybe their paranoia is just more publicly visible. 

What’s peculiar is—as Lindstrom points out—the truth really isn’t so bad.  Consumers can be quite comfortable buying PWS water. It mainly depends on—whether they’ve been told the truth about it.  The whole truth.  And nothing else.

If we doubt the truth of any part of a message—not just lies, but omissions, shifts, allusions, and particularly motives—then everything begins to unravel. What a tangled web we weave…

Once we doubt someone’s motives, it’s like dominoes—one statement after another gets challenged.  We become cynics.  And we end up not trusting the speaker.

A good case  can be made for Public Water Supply water; it’s not so hard to make.   And it beats the heck out of an implied fake that ends up being discovered for what it is.

A lie by any other name will smell the same.  Like contaminated water.