This year marks the 21st anniversary of Louisville pure tap®. A look back at its beginnings (as a reaction to the bottled water industry) shows us that some things have changed while some have not. Bottled water is still a big seller, and Louisville Water is still promoting our high quality water. In recent years, however, Louisville Water has gone greener, no longer giving out bottled water but still providing water at many community celebrations and giving out thousands of pure tap reusable bottles each year.
In the 1990s, the bottled water industry created a huge advertising push to market the benefits of their product while disparaging tap water. At the same time, people selling home water treatment devices scoured neighborhoods, going door-to-door using their sales pitches to “prove” that we could not trust our municipal water.
Knowing the quality and taste of our water was the same, if not better, than many bottled waters, Louisville Water officers and staff took steps to counteract these negative campaigns.
John Huber, Louisville Water president from 1991 to 2007, credits Barbara Crow as the instrumental person in the campaign.
Crow recalled approaching Huber with the idea. “Louisville Water did a great job telling people about the work and repairs made to the system,” Crow recalled, “but was not proactive in telling people we make a good product. We needed to tell people about it and how we do it.”
Her goal was to give people enough information to allow them to make informed decisions on their choice of drinking water.
Before a campaign could begin, a marketing firm under Louisville Water’s direction formed focus groups and did a telephone survey to find out what decisions people made for their drinking water choices and to learn their perception of Louisville Water. The findings were a bit surprising.
People bought bottled water as an alternative to soft drinks and for the convenience of having water at hand. Many bought the bottled water and then refilled it with tap water. Crow’s idea was to have a branded refillable bottle advertising our tap water.
Before the branding campaign kicked off, Louisville Water employees voted on the branding name and even the look of the logo. School children from all over the city helped choose the company’s new mascot; down to its red shoes and blue “hair.” Tapper began as a bottle then switched to its current cup shape a few years ago to “go green.” (Louisville Water first gave out small bottles of water at road races. Now compostable cups are used.)
A large company-wide education campaign kicked off in September 1997. Events were held at locations around the company to let employees know about the campaign and help them become pure tap ambassadors.
Louisville Water was the first utility to brand its product. The first trademark application was filed in 1997. The “Louisville Water pure tap Drink It Cold” logo was registered the next year. The wording “Louisville pure tap” without the logo was registered thirteen years later. Crow explained the lower case lettering for “pure tap” was done to make it stand out.
The initial order of 100,000 sports utility bottles were given away at road races, health fairs and other large community events. The Courier-Journal reported on this new marketing push. The reporter called it a “gimmick” to “trick” people into realizing Louisville’s tap water is “as safe and tasty” as bottled water.
When asked about the board’s reaction to the marketing campaign, Huber replied, “They were all for it.” And what about the cost? “It was the cost of doing business.”
At one point, Louisville Water discussed bottling its own water for the retail market. Huber explained there were many costs involved when competing with national brands and the monetary return was small. The idea was eventually dropped.
But Louisville Water continues to brag about its water quality. Last year, the company provided pure tap products and promotional items to hundreds of events all over the city. Nearly 40,000 refillable bottles were given out at many of these events and in two-pack mailers.
What was once seen as a “gimmick” is now a major marketing campaign, and its success can be seen whenever someone is walking down the street with a pure tap bottle in hand. One of the main points of the campaign has always been, ”If you want really great bottled water in Louisville, we’ll give you the bottle — go fill up at the tap!”