Water bottlers tap teen market

Guzzling students see surging beverage trend as healthy -- and cool

Baltimore City/county

November 03, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

It's lunchtime at Dulaney High School. The kids are grazing on pepperoni pizza and french fries and washing it down with chilled bottled water.

Savvy consumers, students talk up the benefits of hydration, including water's zit-zapping and toxin-sweeping abilities. They drink it down during basketball games and band practice, and pay 65 cents for bottles of it at hallway vending machines.

"It's all about perception, and it's just cool to drink bottled water," said Cathy Haymaker, product specialist for the school system's food and nutrition department.

Throughout Baltimore's metropolitan area, students are prime targets for bottled-water companies looking to tap into the growing youth market. In Howard County, students consumed nearly 110,000 bottles of water last year. In Baltimore County, Haymaker ordered 500,000 bottles of water this year for sale in cafeterias, compared with 5,000 bottles two years ago.

At Dulaney, water's health benefits aren't lost on students.

"It just makes me feel healthy," said 17-year-old Elizabeth Johnson. "My mom drinks bottled water, and she's very healthy. I guess I'm just following her lead."

Students can take bottled water anywhere -- including the classroom, where it's the only beverage teachers allow, said Dulaney Principal Lyle R. Patzkowsky. Spilled soda and juice mess up desks and floors, and attract ants.

Students' water craving is helping beverage moguls turn spring water, or even filtered tap water, into gold.

"The bottled-water industry is driven by youth, people with active lifestyles who are on the go," said Gary A. Hemphill, vice president of Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York. "It's all about a healthy image."

In the beverage industry, competition for school system contracts has intensified recently, not only because schools are buying huge shipments, but because so many companies -- including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which both recently introduced bottled-water brands -- want to cash in on the water boom. Last year, seven companies competed for Baltimore County's school water contract.

U.S. wholesale bottled-water sales hit $4.3 billion last year, about twice the 1990 figure.

"The '90s have really been the bottled-water decade," said Hemphill, who believes that water will edge out milk, coffee and juice in the hierarchy of beverages during the next decade. Soda will still be king, he said.

Bottled-water companies haven't stopped with teen-agers. Gerber sells bottled water for newborns. And California-based Arrowhead recently unveiled 8-ounce plastic bottles small enough to fit in lunch boxes.

"It's just the thing to do," said Carol Almony, Dulaney's cafeteria manager, who distributes cases of bottled water to Timonium, Warren and Pot Spring elementary schools. "The children there request it, and they drink it. It's good, and it's cold."

Companies selling bottled water know that the sooner they hook children, the better.

"Once you get a younger person to drink bottled water and they grow up with that water, you've got a customer for life," said Arthur von Wiesenberger, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based bottled-water expert and founder of the Bottled Water Web site.

A consultant in the industry, von Wiesenberger has watched bottled-water companies intensify sales pitches to teen-agers. Television advertisements for bottled water by Naya feature high-thrill sports and pulsating music.

"Kids really have become bottled-water connoisseurs," said von Wiesenberger, a father of three. "Mine notice when I switch brands at home. They taste the difference."

Bottom line: As long as the kids dig it, it's probably here to stay.

"It used to be perceived as something high-end and wacky that people in California or New York came up with," von Wiesenberger said. "But what we have now is a whole generation of kids born and raised with bottled water. It has become a way of life."

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