Still waters run deeper: The Perrier predicament: salewise it has lost its fizz; designwise it has slightly lost its bottle. Can it burst back? Jonathan Glancey reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twenty-five years ago, the British drank tea, beer and water from the tap. Bottled water, particularly that fizzy French stuff in the funny green bottle, was thought a waste of good money and best left to cranks and foreigners. But in the Eighties Perrier shed its wholemeal image and became one of the 'designer' decade's marketing phenomena.

The economic boom of the Eighties, however, quickly went quiet and Perrier's fizz with it; next week, in an attempt to capture the youth market and boost flagging sales among the over-thirties, the company's British subsidiary will launch its biggest ever advertising campaign (and a trio of fancy limited-edition bottles designed by the London-based graphic artist Brian Grimwood).

It seems a long time since a change of image, an inspired advertising campaign and sheer luck (right product, right time) pushed sales up from a 5 million trickle in 1974 to an oceanic 100 million at the height of the Thatcher boom in the late Eighties. The design of the bottle was celebrated in a tide of new design magazines and exhibitions, while the effervescent water it contained seemed the inevitable alternative to champagne - the other Eighties drink.

The good times rolled for a decade. Then, in 1989, recession burst the Perrier bubble. Firmly associated with power breakfasts, power suits and padded shoulders, the fizzy water was heading for a fall.

In 1990, Perrier met its Waterloo. Tiny amounts of benzene were found in bottles exported to the United States. Benzene is a natural, but unpalatable element found in the earth deep beneath the Perrier bottling plant in Vergeze in the south of France. It is normally filtered out without the slightest trace reaching the bottles. 'It was no more than 15 parts per billion,' a spokesman for Perrier insisted, 'or a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.'

Nevertheless, Perrier was withdrawn for four months, leaving customers thirsty for the dozens of cleverly packaged rivals that rushed to fill the gap. In Britain, these included Tynant spring water, in a stylish bottle sealed in blue plastic, and Hildon, pumped into clean-cut glass masquerading as a vodka bottle.

The same year, the British media carried reports of dangerous microbes lurking in the nation's tap water: sales of bottled still water took off. Perrier, being anything but still, was conspicuously unable to cash in on the boom. Teenagers, meanwhile, for whom mineral water was a normal part of life, had begun swigging from 50cl plastic bottles of still water as an alternative to Lucozade, Sprite and Coke.

The result of these sudden and unforeseen changes was a drop in Perrier sales from 100 million to 50 million bottles in three years. The Swiss food giant Nestle took over in 1992, redundancies were made and a pounds 35m loss declared for 1993. The figure is likely to be the same this year.

Hardly the way to enter your 90th year. But Perrier (UK) is doing something about its sudden reversal in fortunes. The pounds 4m television advertising campaign is aimed mostly at the youth market Perrier has failed to tap. The Grimwood designs, however, do little for St John Harmsworth's classic bottle (which is as much the secret of Perrier's success as the carbonated water itself). And the ads are neither funny, as Perrier publicity used to be, nor French in feel.

Will fancy bottles and a moody TV campaign aimed at sultry youth perform fresh miracles for Perrier? Certainly, no one feels the truth of the old proverb 'still waters run deep' more acutely than Wenche Marshall-Foster, the company's Norwegian-born chief executive. It was Mrs Marshall-Foster, a former international fashion model, who changed British drinking habits and sent sales of Perrier to an all-time high. Her bait was a bubbly, 13-year, pounds 24m poster campaign ('Eau La La', 'H2eau', 'Neau calories', 'Picasseau', 'Who put the eau in bottle?').

'By 1989 we were outselling our nearest rivals (Buxton and Highland Spring) by three to one,' she says. A case, you could say, of eauverhyped, eauverpriced and eauverhere.

Can she bring fresh fizz to old waters (Hannibal was drinking 'Perrier' water - unbottled and unlabelled at the time - when he passed through Vergeze on his ill-fated march on Rome in 218 BC). She has to if she is to keep Nestle sweet; but whereas in 1989, 70 per cent of bottled water sold in Britain was sparkling, last year 68 per cent was still.

'But this must be put into perspective,' she says. 'Perrier sales were just 20 million worldwide in 1948; today they are nearly 800 million and we still have 40 per cent of the world's sparkling water market and 21 per cent of all bottled water sold globally. Perrier sells in 145 countries. We are optimistic.'

But do the new television ads offer the right message? Set in a dusty stretch of California, they revolve around a laid-back hunk happening across a cool, leather-clad biker girl; Perrier bottles spin around aimlessly while the blues classic 'Crossroads' fills in the creative gaps. Give me 'H2eau' anytime, but then I am part of the 'core Perrier-drinker age group, 28-48' and have no desire to be a cool, laid-back, water-swilling hunk.

And are the undeniably eye-catching Grimwood bottles such a good idea? As Mrs Marshall-Foster says, 'the bottle is our hero', and it makes little sense to fiddle with one of the finest ever designed. (St John Harmsworth, brother of Lord Northcliffe the newspaper proprietor, who bought the French spring from Dr Louis Perrier in 1904, based the shape of the bottle on the Indian clubs he exercised with at the time.)

'We are confident that we can boost sales of Perrier in Britain again,' Mrs Marshall-Foster says. 'The market for bottled water here is still in its infancy.' The British drink just eight litres of bottled water per head a year while the French down 111 litres and the Italians 132.

Perrier, however, has always sold itself as a luxury item, the 'champagne of table waters', rather than as a substitute for tap water. Neither has it claimed to be health-giving (although in the fitness-mad United States it sponsors the New York Marathon and here backs London Fashion Week and the Pick of the Fringe comedy award). 'Perrier,' says Mrs Marshall-Foster, 'is the adult soft drink; I'm not in the business of selling water but an idea and a wonderful drink from the south of France.'

But why not forget the moody ads and fancy bottles and have the best of both worlds? Why not take the bubbles out of half the green bottles and sell Perrier Still alongside Perrier Sparkling and satisfy the wets who disdain bubbles? After all, although Perrier is naturally sparkling, gas and water are separated at the start of the bottling process at Vergeze and reintroduced to each other only at the last moment before the caps are sealed. This is because in its original state the water bubbles with such ferocity that it would crack open the famous green bottles well before any drinkers could do so.

'What a lovely idea,' Mrs Marshall-Foster says. 'But, sadly, the name Perrier is given to the sparkling water in its existing state, and if we wanted to bottle the water without gas, we would have to change the name.'

'In any case,' says a spokesman at Vergeze, 'the carbon dioxide helps to create the special taste of Perrier.'

Dry times then for Perrier? Whether or not the latest advertising campaign succeeds as well as the classic 'Eau La La' promotion, the company at least has some breathing space while Nestle agrees to see it as a long-term investment and understands that fashions for mineral waters ebb and flow.

Perrier might be at the crossroads, but the water flooding down from the Garrigues mountains, carbonised by volcanic activity deep below the plains of Languedoc and bursting through a fault in the ooze of clay that would otherwise keep it an eternal secret, will continue to fleau come hell or still water.

(Photographs omitted)