Fiji water’s invite-mockery marketing strategy

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Lynda Resnick, who with her husband Stewart owns Fiji water (along with POM and Teleflora), is on the board of the Aspen Institute and the Milken Family Foundation and is a regular at conferences where people talk about things like sustainability and carbon footprints. So is her water—pictured above at the Milken Foundation Institute Global Conference this week at the Beverly Hilton.

As a result, bottles of Fiji water are frequently used as a prop by panelists wishing to mock the environmental and economic absurdity of high-priced bottled water. I’ve seen it done in the past at Fortune‘s Brainstorm conference, and on Wednesday at the Milken Conference, UCLA chemical engineering professor Yoram Cohen described a new machine that can take polluted seawater and at a cost of 20 cents per 1,000 liters make water that tasted better than the Fiji he held in his hand. “All this is, is hype,” he said, looking at the bottle. At which point one of the other panelists remarked, “You know, they’re one of the sponsors of this program.”

It’s an interesting marketing strategy—voluntarily expose your product to frequent criticism and mockery. I guess they could be calculating that more conference attendees remember the bottles than the mockery, and they may be right about that. Also, the very existence of Fiji water—shipped in little plastic bottles from a remote South Pacific island—is such an affront to modern green sensibilities that going on the offensive may really be the only choice. Fiji has a very aggressive sustainability effort, and claims to make enough investments “in forest carbon and renewable energy projects to take us beyond carbon neutral, to carbon negative.”

It’s all enough to make me wonder, What Would Rob Walker Think? And of course it turns out the NYT mag marketing columnist has already written about this very subject, concluding:

[I]t’s probably wrongheaded to see Fiji’s greened-up image as being aimed at eco-opponents. It really speaks to consumers who are conflicted. Not so long ago we all felt good about drinking less soda; do we now have to feel guilty unless we drink tap water? Reid Lifset, the editor of Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology, … doesn’t swallow Fiji’s advocacy or other green measures as justifying the practice of transplanetary water shipments. Yet he empathizes with the consumer. “People don’t want to spend their lives wrapped up in ambiguities over one consumption decision,” he says. We want to be told whether something is terrible or perfectly acceptable. Fiji is offering its answer — an answer that, so far, people are still buying.