Branding Water: Markets, Materialities and Value
The emergence of bottled water as one of the fastest growing markets in the global beverage industry has attracted much attention, most of it negative. It seems that no sooner had the plastic bottle of water appeared as a mass rather than a boutique commodity than it became a matter of concern. A huge variety of activist campaigns have sprung up against bottles, many of which focus on the threat bottles pose to the provision of safe public water. Branded water is seen as the delegation of water provision to markets and disturbing evidence of the neoliberal commodification of everything.
This paper takes a different approach to the relationship between brands and water. Rather than see brands as expressions of corporate capital and the manipulation of consumers it seeks to understand them as 'market devices' that is, things that help articulate economic action in relation to other devices. Using approaches developed by Callon, Muniesa, Lury and others the paper investigates brands as performative, as key participants in the organisation of an economy of qualities for a product and in practices of commercial and consumer calculation. The nineteenth-century history of the rise of Evian will be used to investigate how an ordinary spring water acquired therapeutic qualities, how the emergence of markets in mineral water was stabilized by the French state, and how this elite nineteenth-century drinking practice is implicated in current mass markets in bottled water and a decline in the value of water from taps.