Putting the fizz back in Perrier: Dominic Murphy sees an ad agency taking the plunge to find a new image

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The Independent Online
ARCHIMEDES found inspiration in the bath. The advertising agency Leo Burnett preferred a Jacuzzi. The occasion? A research group for Perrier: eight women sitting in a bubbling bath and discussing with market researchers what they thought about the bottled water. The reason? Perrier had decided to pull the plug on its famous 'Eau' advertising campaign. Whatever eccentric means it took, the new idea had to be a good one.

For those who have always suspected advertising is a bit of a silly science anyway, such tidings are more grist to their sceptical mill. But for the agency and the Nestle client that were trying to change a 15-year-old habit of puns based around eau - Picasseau, Sun leaution, Eau come all ye faithful - nothing could be more serious.

'It was bizarre in one way,' says Leo Burnett's head of planning, Neil Cassie, who at one point mooted the idea of putting the human guinea- pigs in a bath full of Perrier. 'But the water (revivifying, bubbly) enabled people to talk about the way they felt without inhibitions.'

This curious research was the finale to two more orthodox question-and-answer sessions. Its background, the decision to kill off eau, came about for a number of reasons. In the Seventies, Perrier had introduced a conservative British public to water in a bottle and saw its consumption change in this country from a trickle to a torrent (in 1974 it sold 500,000 bottles; in 1989, 200 million). But in 1990 its fortunes plunged in a contamination scare that led to bottles being recalled from the shops.

This consolidated the position of cheaper competitors that had joined a bottled water bonanza in the Eighties and opened the floodgates for the launch of more varieties. To cap it all, although the bottled water market is growing, the tide is turning away from carbonated waters such as Perrier in favour of still waters. Thus, the brand that for many was synonymous with mineral water had to rethink what it was about.

The Jacuzzi sessions, having performed their tongue-

loosening purpose, yielded two broad conclusions. 'There are historical associations between women and water that go back to mythology, the equivalent of men with fire,' says Mr Cassie. Water represents fertility and birth ('It makes the crops grow'), which can be equated with women, and it is therefore a 'tremendous symbol of power'.

Second, says Mr Cassie, the idea of bubbling mineral water coming out of the earth gives a sense of magic as well as power. For this reason the women thought Perrier 'a potent, revivifying, drug-like drink'.

So how does this translate into the commercial? The scene is a slick-looking bar. It is empty, the only sign of life being a video playing in the corner. This is showing a confrontation between a woman and an oafish barman. The woman reminds the barman that she asked for Perrier, not any old water. Oaf replies that water is just water and the woman goes berserk - the idea and endline being that nothing else will do.

'If water puts out fire, and the woman's power is water- based and the man's power is fire-based,' says Mr Cassie by way of cosmological explanation, 'then the woman overcomes the man.'

One thrust of the commercial, he continues, is that women (the bigger consumers of water) are in control, but it will still appeal to the 'female side of the man'. The other is that Perrier is a 'must have', a drug-like experience that the agency hopes will whet the appetites of young people as a fashionable thing to drink. 'Its competition is now energy drinks, soft drinks, even bottled beers,' Mr Cassie says.

But while anything drinkable and attractive to 16- to 24- year-olds watches its back and waits for the commercial to be screened this month, there is a twist in the tale. Whatever its success or failure, Leo Burnett will not be there to reap the rewards or take the flak. The rival agency Publicis won the account while work on the new commercial was still under way. It could decide to change the strategy once again. Watch this space.