Dash Water, designed by Horse

There’s a passage in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, in which Courtney, the lover of protagonist Patrick Bateman, claims to use “Evian for ice cubes.” She and another character go on to list as many water brands as they can:

“‘Well, there’s Sparcal, Perrier, San Pellegrino, Poland Spring, Calistoga…’ She stops, stuck, and looks over at McDermott for help. He sighs, then lists, Canadian Spring, Canadian Calm, Montclair, which is also from Canada, Vittel from France, Crodo, which is Italian…’”

They then go on to discuss the merits of glass bottles over plastic (“You want it to be crisp, with no aftertaste”) and the difference between spring and mineral water. In Ellis’s hands, bottled water and its many guises becomes another symbol of pointlessly detailed knowledge; a daft demarcation of style and status in an idiotic yuppie pissing contest.

Call them H20 2.0: they’re flavored, they’re “fun”, they’re in cans, and they’re pitching themselves as new sodas.

Since the hedonistic 1980s of the book, such brands have come to be seen not as a luxury item, but as something as common as soda. Now, bottled water is commonly thought of as an environmental danger, not to mention something of a frivolous expense. Our appetites have been very much whetted for new takes on water—for healthier soda alternatives, for classier soda alternatives, for convenience, and for so many other reasons—and a slew of brands have emerged to meet the demand. Some designs move non-tap water into the sphere of soda, while other branding errs towards playfulness, rather than promises of provenance. Instagramable splashes of color to hint at the new—and healthy, of course—flavoring over ’80s mineral water seriousness.

Call them H20 2.0: they’re flavored, they’re “fun”, they’re in cans, and they’re pitching themselves as new sodas—though without the megacorp and sugar guilt. Here, we take a look at how they’re branded, and the role of the designer in ushering in this new trend for jazzy hydration.

Water as a lifestyle brand

In a piece on “craft” sparkling water for the Guardian, writer Emine Saner reports that retail analysts Mintel estimated sales in the UK of sparkling water were £204 million in 2016, up 11% on the year before, with growth in both flavored and unflavored fizzy water. The branding and design of such products naturally plays a huge role, especially considering that the fastest growing markets for sparking water are in younger generations. Cue Instragram marketing.

La Croix is perhaps the ultimate example of this. Over the past few years, people—or more specifically, the internet–has gone loopy over the stuff. It’s a hair trend. It’s a slogan T-shirt. It is a veritable Instagram lifestyle brand, and it has sparked a ludicrous deluge of think pieces about how and why.

We’d argue that it’s not just down to the taste (or lack thereof), or the no-calorie, “no-baddies” ingredients list. It’s the design of can: the ’80s colorways beloved by mid-00s hipsters and the faux-classy sweeping serif (an aesthetic that’s the winning millennial combo of gauche masquerading as knock-off classiness). The look is both ironic and non-ironic; you love it in the same way as you love Italo disco, or ABBA—with utmost sincerity, and with an awareness of its ridiculousness but a misty eyed nostalgia for something you never had. Hence the rise of copycat brands like LaVie.

Taking similarly colorful cues, Dash Water is a UK brand that co-founder Jack Scott says is aimed squarely at the “premium” end of the burgeoning flavored water category. Stocked in the likes of swanky department store Selfridges and Whole Foods, it retails at around £1.50 ($2) per can. The name alludes to both a “dash” of flavor and the idea of people “dashing” around, leading hectic lives and wanting to reach for a convenient yet classy beverage.

Scott brought in London studio Horse to create the branding and packaging design, having admired its work for similar high-end mineral water brands in the past.  Scott says he chose the agency for its “clean and contemporary” work. 

“We wanted to create something that had the sort of desirability of Fiji water—something sophisticated and premium, as our target was late 20s, female… people with a bit of extra cash  looking for something good on the go, but wary of what they eat and drink.”

Dash’s branding and packaging design holds clear appeal for that sort of market. It plays it safe typographically—opting for a mixture of a serene sans serif and a classy serif script—though it brings in some edginess by splitting the product name over two lines. Tellingly, the color palette plays right into the hands of the palettes du jour: one can is millennial pink, another is a cute-but-cool muted turquoise. The Dash Instagram feed heightens this idea of design-led lifestyle brand ever further: yes, that’s a Pantone chart.

Water as soda alternative

While Dash pitches itself as a more interesting alternative to plain sparkling water, a large driver of this “fancy water” trend is as a replacement for tooth-rotting, paunch-building drinks. LaCroix is succeeding as methadone for the soda addict,” as a writer on Vox put it. In the UK, too, brands are being forced to rethink their sugar content, since the sugar tax was introduced in April this year.

It’s that idea of making something flavorful, but healthful, that Ugly drinks co-founder Hugh Thomas feels is behind this newish raft of water-based, soda-like products: “People are realizing that the amount of sugar and sweetener in soda is considerable, and as it’s a liquid, people often don’t realize how much [sugar] they’re consuming.” In turn, Ugly looks to conflate the two: “On one front, it’s the excitement of a cold can, like a carbonated soft drink, but it’s also just a flavored water,” Thomas says. “It’s hydrating, with no sugar, sweetener, or calories.”

Ugly’s brand positioning, created by JKR, is based around the concept of “the Ugly truth.” Thomas says that attitude is something of a riposte to traditional food and beverage marketing that over-promises and under-delivers. “It’s all just smiley, happy people holding cans of brown sugary syrup,” he says. “The ‘ugly truth’ is about transparency. It’s partly a reference to what’s going on around politics, with fake news and ‘alternative facts.’ It’s also about having a strong opinion and positive rebellion.”

“Just because it’s healthy, it doesn’t have to look boring.”

JKR’s designs for Ugly riff on the idea of sugar-free fun: the type is bubbly and bold, the colors eye-wateringly bright. According to Stephen McDavid, JKR creative director on the project, the agency was brought in to redesign the cans in a bid to become “less like a challenger brand, and more like a global icon” that now sees the big soda brands as competition.

“Just because it’s healthy, it doesn’t have to look boring,” says McDavid. “We wanted to create something with distinctive assets, that people are proud to be seen with.” As with soda brands of yore, a key part of this strategy was to be gently provocative—hence the name Ugly. “It’s very distinctive and very memorable. The new look and feel was very much inspired by the founders, who used to work out of a shipping container, play loud music, and play lots of rebellious pranks.”

To go with the new name, the agency also developed a new ‘U’ tongue icon. “It’s the ultimate expression of attitude, sticking your tongue out at the world,” says McDavid. The marketing campaign posters deliberately poke a finger at the world of marketing and its daft promises, all while the overall visual identity deliberately rails against typical “health” cues and cliches. 

Style and substance

While these brands are appealing to different target audiences, they are all united by a design strategy that looks to convey more than just their healthiness, but a certain swagger or sophistication. “We’re a brand with attitude, but there’s substance behind what we’re doing,” says JKR’s McDavid. “We haven’t just created something Instagramable.” Thomas adds: “We’re a very design-led business. We have a strong style, and that’s important to us.”

Even plain old still watery water can somehow be ascribed coolness in 2018.

Thomas jokes that he thinks water is “cool.” Such an admission, as he realizes, is inherently quite funny: water is water—it’s not like, say, a shirt or pair of glasses that can easily siphoned into “cool” or “not cool.” But it seems that’s changed: even just plain old still watery water can somehow be ascribed coolness in 2018. A case in point? Can o’ Water. As the rather hilarious name suggests, it’s literally a can of water, with a resealable lid. But one that since the brand’s founding just a couple of years ago has gone on to sponsor London Fashion Week and supply glitzy events like the Oscars and Vanity Fair parties.

Can o’ Water’s branding was created by one of its three co-founders, Perry Alexander. “The whole idea is twofold,” he says. “The brand was inspired by creating a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles, and to apply a graphic vision so that it stands out a bit in being more clean and minimal.”

The can designs are indeed minimal: black for sparkling, white for still, with a simple serif font arranged both vertically and horizontally against a teardrop device for the typographic mark. Alexander claims to have arrived at the design solution at a “eureka moment,” after which he quickly mocked it up. “It was just clean and simple, the black and white, and also very neutral.” The typefaces are Myriad and Myriad Pro Light, again chosen for their simplicity and neutrality. “It was a conscious decision not to overcrowd the can. Less is more,” says Alexander.

Environmental Can-cerns

According to Alexander, his brand’s apparent coolness is simply a by-product of its main raison d’être: environmental consciousness. The “can” of Can o’ Water wants to replace the plastic water bottles that are filling the oceans and stubbornly not biodegrading.

“Where we are on sugar is further down the road that where we are on single-use plastic, and I think it’s going to change really quickly.”

Ugly drinks is also hot on sustainability: its listing in major UK supermarket Tesco is 100% plastic free—the cans are aluminium and the trays used to ship the product are card, rather than shrink-wrapped. Thomas sees the gradual broader shift in consumer awareness around sustainability as analogous to that around sugar: “Where we are on sugar is further down the road that where we are on single-use plastic, and I think it’s going to change really quickly,” he says. For every Ugly can sold, 1 pound in the UK (or 1 cent in the US) goes to the gender equality charity Girl Up.

Railing against waste in another way, Dash’s water is created from extracts of surplus “wonky” fruit and vegetables, which have been deemed too ugly for the supermarkets, poor sods. 

Tradition and differentiation

These young, slightly flavored upstarts all look to “disrupt” water in some way or another. But for plain old traditional bottled water, there are some unique challenges for designers.

In 2014, Thompson Brand Partners, based in Leeds, northern England, rebranded Harrogate Spring Water, which only last month saw its biggest sales ever, despite the increasing move away from single-use plastic. The rebrand saw the introduction of “diamond bottles” and background patterns on labels inspired by tiles in the Royal Baths sited in the town of Harrogate. “These acknowledgments of the past are balanced with a refined, modern logo to bring the brand up to date,” says the agency. Eschewing the green or blue palettes common to water brands, Thompson stuck with monochrome.

Rachel Cook, senior account manager at Thompson, points out that the major challenge for a water design project is that “water is just the same to some people—there’s no product differentiation, it really is the same. Unlike other categories like crisps, which can be differentiated by bringing in new flavors, or cues around crunch—water brands can only differentiate their product through the brand.”

So maybe it boils down to that point around differentiation that separates the LeCroixs from the also-rans of the sector? Ultimately, as Cooks points out, it’s good design that builds a brand. But does it build a trend? Partly. Just how much, only time will tell.