Never have so many acquiesced with so much eagerness in so much bluff. By any measure, mineral water in the UK is a mysterious business. First, we didn't drink the stuff. Then we started drinking it, fashionably imported. Then we started drinking it, locally produced. Finally, we started selling our own fashionable stuff to foreigners. And all the while, we have almost no idea what we are drinking (though we have a sense that it is somehow good for us). Above all, we know that it comes in differently shaped and coloured bottles - simple or sophisticated, modern or traditional. And that is the definition of taste.
The story of mineral water in Britain has gone in strange circles, even as our appetite for it has increased. Like the naked fashion shoot, less has become more. No taste has become the taste, designer minimalism for the gastronomic world. Now it has turned so successful, the bottlers are worried. How can they persuade consumers to stop thinking of paid-for water as a drink too ordinary? They worry that they have lost the economic plot. As part of an attempted fightback, you can, in due course, expect to see a poster hoarding near you converting the image of water from the oh-so-obvious back into an aspirational product. Without that, where's the profit margin? Water: a non-fattening tale of profit and taste - covered with a light sprinkling of Zeitgeist.
Once upon a time, in the imperial heyday, Britons needed no persuasion to drink bottled water. Passengers on the Titanic drank mineral water along with the vintage wines. At the beginning of this century, "Scotch and Polly" - whisky with Apollinaris mineral water, imported from Germany - was a popular combination. In the post-war world, however, the idea of buying bottled water became an alien concept. Britons looked down their noses at the poor benighted foreigners who had to drink mineral water because their mains water was so foul. Britons, by contrast, liked to boast of the quality of their mains water as a national treasure, along with the Health Service and the BBC. As one man involved in marketing mineral water in the early days remembers: "People in the UK had lost the art of drinking bottled water."
The Big Bang that changed all this was, of course, the famous green bottle from France. Back in the flared Seventies, a Norwegian-born former Dior model, Wenche (pronounced Venka) Marshall Foster, started working for Perrier's sales team - and achieved a commercial miracle. It was she who, in the words of an admiring rival, "made the mineral water market in this country - there's no question". The massive advertising campaign that brought bubbly water to Britain successfully sold a lifestyle. From eau-la-la through to pseudeau, Perrier and the Eighties became inextricably intertwined. First, the chic restaurants began stocking it, then the dinner-party hosts. Soon, every self-respecting yuppie in the land was drinking water out of the odd-shaped green bottles. The dawn-to-dusk new City work ethic - water not wine at lunchtime - and the growing revulsion against drink-driving both helped. Marshall Foster, who went on to become Perrier's chief executive, remembers the glorious moment when she first saw a man ordering a Perrier in a pub. "That was when I knew." It was no longer wimpish to be a water baby.
Not everybody was impressed that the British bulldog had started drinking bottled water. As the revolution got under way, the Sun demanded: "Have we gone completely soppy in the brain?" But the growth was unstoppable. During the Eighties, sales increased more than twentyfold to 200 million bottles a year. Perrier became for mineral water what Rollerblades would later be for in-line skates: a new fashion defined by a single brand name.
That position looked unassailable. We regarded the French as the kings of cuisine. Why should they not be the unchallenged emperors of the eau business, too? At the beginning of 1990, however, at the height of Perrier power, a sudden scare changed everything and enabled the Brit-waterers' luck to turn. Minute traces of benzene were found in Perrier - not enough for it to be genuinely dangerous (you would have to drink it daily for more than a century for that), but enough for it to be withdrawn from sale. By the standards of health scares, Perrier's strategy was immaculate - swift, clear-cut, unflinching. After a six-week self-imposed purdah, Perrier was back on the shelves to the sound of advertising trumpets.
Despite the confident relaunch, however, the absence had created a literal market gap. Something had to fill the empty shelves and the space on restaurant tables. Suddenly, the still-hesitant Brits found that they had come of mineral age.
Highland Spring, produced at the little village of Blackford in Perthshire, was the first to prove that British water need not just be a joke; it is the biggest-selling British water today. But designer water was quick to get in on the act. Robin Shepard was working in the hotel industry at the time; his friend owned a property in Wales that included a spring. Why not ... ? The idea of the Welsh spring water, Ty Nant, was born. This time, it was packaging, not advertising, that did the trick. Shepard reckoned a softly curved blue bottle would look decorative on the dinner table. The glass manufacturers did not want to make blue glass, and the marketing gurus thought he was crazy. Nobody, they said, would want to drink from a blue bottle. "The consultants we hired said that blue was the colour of poison or medicine - Nil by Mouth. I said: `If I'm right, and you're wrong, will you give me my money back?'" Within a year, Shepard had received a large cheque. The bottle became an almost instant design item - drink the water, put the bottle on the mantelpiece. It even found itself in art installations.
And the taste of this ultra-fashionable, seriously expensive water? Shepard himself is engagingly frank about the secondary importance of what went inside the bottle. It was clean, it was inoffensive; that was all that mattered. "The bottle was what counted. One food writer described the taste as `neutral' - and I couldn't have asked for a nicer compliment." More than half of the sales of (now Italian-owned) Ty Nant are export sales. They like a nice bottle, abroad.
Imitations are rife. These days, you cannot get away from poison-coloured bottles. You can find Icelandic water in carafe-curved bottles ("Deep inside the black basalt rocks of Iceland lie dark caverns of the purest water"). There is Irish water in old-fashioned blue bottles ("Nash's Waters - established 1875"). Or there is the Ten Degrees English water ("flows from its source at a perfectly cool, clean bright 10C") ... in an understated, light-blue bottle. Ten years on, blue had ousted green as the colour for water.
Ty Nant set a pattern that has been repeatedly followed in the succeeding years. In the 1990s, "British style" was no longer an oxymoron: British bands, British artists, even British cuisine (offal and all) suddenly became cutting-edge. Newly cool Britannia needed mineral water of its own.
At the exclusive end of the market, brilliant packaging helped again. Christian Heppe, a Hamburg-born former art dealer who had made his home in Hampshire, decided to market the water from his estate at Hildon House near Stockbridge. Heppe talks enthusiastically about the taste of his water, but you cannot help feeling that if he had bought a beautiful house almost anywhere else, he would be equally persuasive about the water there.
Heppe is the first to emphasise that he is, above all, marketing a lifestyle. In his own words, it is "a lifestyle every English person would like to live - not arrogant, but very established". Where Ty Nant's bottle was supremely modern, the Hildon bottle is English classic - a Barbour jacket for the dinner table. The Hildon house magazine (yes, there is one) has articles about horse shows and grand country hotels, and aligns itself with Coutts, Asprey and the Dorchester. You get the general idea. Hildon describes itself as "synonymous with style, elegance, and Englishness". And why? How? There is no answer. Even the company's own literature describes the success of Hildon as "one of the great marketing enigmas of the past 10 years".
At the turn of the millennium, Hildon is just one of many quasi-patriotic waters. Marshall Foster has left Perrier and is now a director of a company just up the road from Hildon, producing Ashe Park water. Ashe Park, the label informs us, is where Jane Austen used to stay. Resolute Englishness is now the order of the day: think cricket, the smell of mown grass. The Duke of Marlborough dug up the grounds of Blenheim Palace and struck liquid gold in the form of Blenheim Water. And so it continues. All across Britain, anybody with a scrap of countryside in a picturesque-sounding area hopes to bottle and sell their water to you. The latest wheeze is expensively pre-packed globules of water - "ready to freeze Highland Ice for people who demand purity, authenticity and style in their drinks" shouts the label. Ask yourself: how did you ever live without it?
Along with the niches, there have been bigger markets to conquer, too. Mineral water had to sell itself as young and hip, not just the preserve of the comfortably yuppified classes. Here, the new pattern of clubbing provided another watershed. In the old days, pints of bitter downed in quick succession were the only recreational drug that mattered on a Saturday night. By the 1990s, all that had changed. Ecstasy proved to be the best marketing tool that the industry could ever have dreamed of. Water, water and more water became the obvious rule.
A pioneer from the early days still remembers how he and his colleagues were scoffed at when they first started selling still water ("They used to tell us: `It's more expensive than petrol'"). Soon, however, still water overtook the bubbly. A marketing manager remembers how in the 1980s he sometimes received orders of an astonishing, E-driven size. "Somebody who was usually ordering just a few bottles would suddenly ask for a thousand cases. You'd say: `This is way out of order.' And he'd say: `Oh well ... there's a party.' We knew, but we couldn't say. After all, we were selling a mother-and-baby image at that stage."
At a recent discussion group where mineral-water professionals were asked to list the potential plus-points of their products, "health", "purity", and other such thoughts were swiftly followed by the joke suggestion of "drugs". For whatever happens, there will never be a poster slogan with the words "Ecstasy and Evian - the perfect match".
Mineral water is clearly here to stay, along with the rest of our newly Europeanised lifestyle - from showers to pavement cafes. Bottled-water drinking has quadrupled in the past 10 years. This year will show a dip in growth, because of the lousy summer. But the overall pattern is onward and upward.
Despite or because of that, the bottlers are facing a serious midlife crisis. On the one hand, they complain that too few people still drink bottled water. In the words of Joe Beeston, chief executive of Highland Spring, "Only 30 per cent are drinking bottled water. How do we double that?" Figures produced by Zenith, a consultancy specialised in the bottled water market, show that our annual consumption is just 15 litres a head; the French and Germans drink six or seven times more than that; the Italians, 10 times more.
Partly, however, the bottlers are worried that we have begun to drink too much - or rather, too indiscriminately. We buy water as a commodity, along with the bread, milk and eggs. We buy it because we feel we should, rather than for pleasure ("People are buying `not-tap water'," as one executive complained). All of these things are, it seems, Very Grave Sins in the eyes of those who sell us our water. It is not enough merely to drink it: we ought to love it, too.
Highland Spring is proud to show off its state-of-the-art plant in Perthshire, where specks of dust (or the dreaded cryptosporidium parasite) would find it hard to get a look in. Elaborate non-stop testing - every production line, every hour - means that the chances of another benzene-style scare are vanishingly small. But Beeston spreads liberal amounts of doom and gloom, warning of a "lemming-like surge towards the brink of lunatic trading". On the one hand, the mineral-water producers berate the supermarkets, who are their biggest customers but who also relentlessly force their profit margins downwards. On the other hand, there is bitter in-fighting between the different bottled- water clans. Natural mineral waters, spring water, table water, water- coolers - for those in the industry there are crucial differences. They are dismayed that the Great British Public seems to neither know nor care.
For the record, very approximately, mineral water comes straight from the deep ground and stays entirely unchanged; spring water is what you and I might regard as pure water, but it may be chemically tweaked and bottled away from the source; table water means: drink this if you are really so tight-fisted that you refuse to pay for the real thing. Mineral-water producers talk about spring water in the way that a grand cru producer might talk about Blue Nun. And, as for table water, they would rather not talk about it at all.
Do you now feel wiser? Good. In that case, you will be glad to know that all the definitions are about to change. In the meantime, the waterers, horrified by our continuing ignorance and indifference, have launched an information service to explain it all to us in lurid detail - while seeking to persuade the remaining two-thirds of the population that they should start drinking, fast.
Life is made more complicated because one key reason why people drink bottled water has nothing to do with the product itself - and everything to do with the perception of a different product, which has the advantage of coming free. Christian Heppe, creator of Hildon, sums up the problem: "Our enemy is the tap."
Bad news about tap water does wonders for the sales of bottled water. Dramatic health scares like the one at Camelford in 1988 - when aluminium sulphate got into the wrong tank - have a huge effect, as do stories about cryptosporidium in the supply. Three Valleys Water last year agreed to pay out pounds 3m between 300,000 customers who had to boil their water because it was infected by the parasite. Such stories are music to the bottled-water industry's ears - though they are too polite to say so in as many words. "We won't knock tap water - but we will do comparisons," is the genteel comment from Ian Hall, commercial director of Highland Spring and chairman of the Natural Mineral Water Association.
Even if the bottled-water industry faces the worst-case scenario - that the water utilities might clean up their act to the extent that Camelford or cryptosporidium stories become a thing of the past - bottled water seems to be here to stay. The marketers hope that we will eventually become as image-conscious with our mineral waters as we already are about our cars or our clothes. Already, we are supposed to be heading in that direction. The difference between Evian and Volvic is reckoned to be the difference between the young and hip (Evian is "a badge brand, a fashion brand"), versus the secure and mature (Volvic is "less ostentatious, more down to earth"). Or, in the fabulously baffling marketer's phrase: "Evian's about being, Volvic's about doing." (Are you drinking the right product? Or are you gatecrashing somebody else's category? How dare you?) Peter Dawson, marketing manager for both brands, freely admits that the difference in taste is not crucial to the image. For the overwhelming majority of consumers, the distinction is all in the mind.
For the moment, for millions of us, water is simply water. It divides into water that we trust and water that we don't trust, and water that tastes OK and water that doesn't. In that sense, we are a marketer's dream and nightmare, rolled into one. We don't much care what our water tastes of - just as long as it tastes of not much and doesn't come out of a tap. (And, crucially, the bottle must be perfect.) The marketers hope that in the next few years they can persuade us to become loyal to their own brand of tasteless, colourless liquid: they have their work cut out