Sacrebleu! How the fizz bubbled out of the Eighties icon

Susie Mesure
Wednesday 05 February 2003 01:00

Eau dear! It may have been an icon of the Eighties, but Perrier remains strictly last season when it comes to bottled water. The brand, which is sourced from Vergeze, a spa town in Provence, was discovered, believe it or not, by an Englishman. St John Harmsworth, brother of the British press magnate Lord Harmsworth, was sent to Vergeze to recuperate after being badly injured in a car crash. He was introduced to the naturally bubbling water, liked it, and decided to bottle it so his friends could drink it with their whisky.

It owes its name to Louis Perrier, the doctor who introduced the young Brit to the fizzy water, and also its bottle design, which was based on the Indian clubs M. Perrier advised Mr Harmsworth to swing for exercise.

For more than a decade in the Eighties, Perrier had the mineral water market practically to itself in this country. Its popularity soared on the back of advertising campaigns that brought a little bit of Gallic flair into everyday British lives through slogans such as eau-la-la. Its very name became a byword for bottled water in the wine bars so beloved by yuppies at the time. In Britain alone, its sales soared from 30 million litres a year in 1980 to 420 million in 1990. Globally, the brand was selling 1 billion litres a year.

But then catastrophe struck. In 1990, traces of a carcinogenic substance were found in a handful of its then-ubiquitous green bottles. The traces of benzene were found during routine testing in the US in just 12 bottles. Although the company initially withdrew 72 million bottles from the US market, it mishandled the scandal by claiming that the benzene levels were not dangerous. Brand loyalty, which had taken the best part of a century to build up, vanished almost over night as the company was eventually forced to tip 280 million bottles down the sink. Snapped up by Nestlé in 1992, Its Swiss owners will need to have a special something up their sleeve if the brand is to regain the kudos it enjoyed 13 years ago.

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