There is a new brand of water in the Netherlands. Sold as an empty bottle, it requires the buyer to fill up from his own tap. At 100 percent drinking water, Neau is positioning itself explicitly against the bottled mineral water trend.
In the Netherlands, plain drinking water is of renowned and excellent quality; what’s more, it actually tastes good. Holland is one of the few countries in Europe (and in the world) where you can drink water directly from the tap safely, without any health risks. And that is exactly the crux of Neau, says Menno Liauw, of Amsterdam-based advertising bureau Vandejong and Stichting Neau (the Neau Foundation).
“Neau is being sold in empty bottles that you can fill with drinking water, over and over, as often as you like,” he explains. “Doing this, Neau makes people better aware of the outstanding quality of our day-to-day drinking water to emphasize the contrast with the lousy quality or the total lack of drinkable water in third world countries.”
The Dutch are accustomed to clean, cheap drinking water. They not only drink it, they also shower, flush their toilets, and clean their cars with drinking water, not realizing how special this abundance really is. Despite the cleanliness of Dutch drinking water, the average consumption of bottled mineral water in Holland is growing.
The Neau brand has a dual effect: It makes people conscious of the worldwide water problem, and its revenues are spent in drinking water projects in underdeveloped countries in Africa, Vietnam, Peru, and other poor parts of the world. These drinking water projects are being coordinated by well-known Dutch charity organizations like Unicef Nederland and Plan Nederland, with whom Neau cooperates.
Neau is being sold in the form of a firm, clear blue plastic (PET) bottle of 33 centiliters at the price of regular mineral water, € 1.80 (US$ 2.23). However, the bottle is empty. Instead of water it contains a rolled-up Neau flyer, a message in a bottle that explains Neau’s position. By not selling water itself, but by branding the water that people are filling the bottles with, Neau is a product and a campaign in one, Liauw explains. “When you drink a bottle of Neau,” he continues. “You indirectly provide a refugee camp in Sudan with seventeen liters of clean drinking water. Every draught for you is ten draughts for them. Drinking here is drinking there.”
Vandejong invented Neau in 2003, initially as a sort of joke. And indeed, it does sound like a joke to the uninitiated. First reactions tend to be: So Neau makes you pay again for water that you already paid for? Or: You are making money by selling plain air (which is sometimes a criticism of advertising in general). But Liauw immediately opposes these charges: “No, we are not selling plain air. We sell conscientiousness and social responsibility.”
The joke quickly turned into a serious campaign and targeted the leaders in bottled water. “We want to make Neau the conscientious alternative for all those fashionable mineral water brands, like Evian, Viteau and Perrier,” Liauw says.
That the name Neau winks to the French word “eau” for water isn’t a coincidence.
Instead Neau, pronounced “No” in English, says exactly that to expensive bottled waters. Liauw explains: “In the beginning we thought we should burst the myth of all those commercial bottled waters. We thought that this would appeal to our main target group, the younger generation. Therefore we liked the rebellious sound of Neau.” But Neau also allows clever slogans in English on the packaging and in the campaigns like “Neau thirst” and “Take Neau for an answer.”
Vandejong worked to gain support and cooperation with companies keen to invest in cause-related marketing. In January this year, Ikea Nederland provided its 5,000 employees with a Neau bottle as a present, accompanying a special issue of their internal company magazine, “Interior,” which focused on Ikea’s sustainability program. Fair trade fashion brand Kuyichi, which supports durable economies in underdeveloped countries, uses Neau at exhibitions as a giveaway.
The Dutch government is also interested. Neau is getting a subsidy from the Dutch Ministry of Environmental Affairs for a campaign that will start this fall aimed at high school students in Amsterdam, in cooperation with Waterworks Amsterdam. And for the necessary backing in financial and fiscal matters, Neau/Vandejong gets sponsoring and support from the Dutch branch of accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Neau promoted itself by selling thousands of bottles at several festivals, pop concerts and other big events, like the World Harbour Days in Rotterdam, the Navy Days (Vlootdagen) of the Royal Dutch Marine in Den Helder, and the International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam this past June. Online Neau is sold at the Plaza 21C Store, which sells only sustainable products and services.
A new breakthrough in the Neau brand is expected with the launch of Neau water coolers. Currently the vast majority (about 120,000) of water coolers in use in Dutch companies are bottled water coolers, which means the bottle rests in the system and requires changing. Nestlé leads the market with its brand, Aqua Systems. Another 10,000 water coolers are piped-water coolers, which are directly connected to a piped-water system (what in the US are called point-of-use coolers).
According to Jeroen Speksnijder, managing director of WaterCare Nederland, a market leader in piped-water coolers, the market for these coolers is growing rapidly, mainly because of the excellent piped-water quality in Holland. Speksnijder explains that there are other reasons as well: “The bottles in bottled water coolers have many disadvantages: they are very heavy to carry and are three-hundred times as expensive as piped-water. Moreover, you pay for storage, handling, stock and delivering costs of these bottled water cans, which [additionally harm] the environment as well.”
To make his product more attractive, Speksnijder this fall added the Neau water cooler to his assortment, in cooperation with Vandejong/Stichting Neau. For a Neau cooler (a WaterCare cooler labeled with Neau badges), clients pay an extra € 150 (US$ 186) a year. The consumer, in essence, becomes a Neau donator.
Every Neau cooler comes with 25 empty Neau bottles, for desk drinking and outside drinking, to empathically show the social responsibility of the company and its employees. These Neau water coolers do not have a filter, since that would contradict the concept of Neau as good clean drinking water. Every employee also gets a digital newsletter about currently-supported drinking water projects in underdeveloped countries.
Speksnijder doesn’t have a precise idea of how many Neau coolers he will sell. “Neau provides goodwill, but primarily I see Neau as an extra tool of selling more coolers.” He adds, “We are in the business of selling water coolers, after all.” Speksnijder emphasizes that Neau sales stand or fall with the internal communication programs of his clients and prospects, “and how eager companies are of profiling themselves as a social[ly] responsible company.”
Erwin Wijman is an Amsterdam-based freelance journalist specializing in advertising, marketing, media, automotive marketing, and linguistics. He writes for a major daily and leading magazines.
This article has been published on Brandchannel/Bloomberg on October 5th 2005.