« Previous | Main | Next »

The Foods That Make Billions

Post categories:

Fiona Ellis-Chadwick Fiona Ellis-Chadwick | 12:23 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Foods That Make Billions is a fascinating three-part series, which grabbed my attention as it goes directly to the core issues which affect the development of markets for branded products from a very practical viewpoint.

I'm a senior lecturer in retail management and this new series is valuable to me from a teaching perspective because it brings alive a whole range of marketing concepts. The series encapsulates in moments many ideas, making theoretical principles easy to understand.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

I'm also one of the academic consultants on the series, so have attended concept and production meetings, offered advice on the focus of the series, read transcripts and fact-checked the content.

The really exciting part was watching the rushes as this is when the programme really started to take shape. Each episode focuses on a different foodstuff - bottled water, yoghurt and cereal.

In the UK, we have clean water available on tap and yet we spend our hard-earned cash buying two billion litres of bottled water every year. The food industry has become very adept at repackaging basic commodities and selling them to us to make significant profits.

Episode one, Liquid Gold, looks at many core branding concepts and draws us into the unfolding story of the development of the multi-billion dollar market of bottled water.

In the programme, Professor Richard Wilk, who teaches anthropology at Indiana University, makes the point that in the past, water was blessed by holy people and given power. Now he says the power is bestowed on water by corporations, governments, celebrities and brands.

The question of whether water has mystical connotations is interesting. Water is an essential commodity - without it you die. So there are perhaps rational arguments for raising water up to a holy status.

Liquid Gold shows how entrepreneurs and multinational corporations like Nestle, Evian and Coca Cola have turned this naturally occurring and life-saving drink into successful brands, and arguably encourage us to worship the brand by drinking bottled water - as if part of a new religion - daily during work, exercise and relaxation.

Bottled water

Is it immoral to build mega brands of bottled water while parts of the world are dying of thirst? Not having access to water is wrong in a world of excess, but so is not having food to eat, a place to work and earn a living, and a safe place to live.

Successful use of marketing and branding techniques has helped global corporations to create seemingly insatiable demand for bottled water in parts of the world. But bottled water is only part of a much bigger picture of social injustice between those individuals who 'have' and who 'have not'.

Most likely, there are suitable answers to many of the world's problems but while solutions are contingent on business success that is measured in financial terms we are unlikely to find answers which will give everyone access to a drink of water and a plate of food.

So water is no different to the commercialisation of many other commodities. It's just that in the UK, many of us are prepared to buy into bottled water brands to satisfy our daily needs rather than drinking from the tap, without much consideration of the sacrifices and wider impact of this act of consumption. The Foods That Make Billions gets into many of these issues and raises questions for us all to think about.

Dr Fiona Ellis-Chadwick is a senior lecturer in retail management at The Open University and an academic consultant on The Foods That Make Billions.

The Foods That Make Billions is on BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday, 23 November.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    One of the frightening product development concepts developed in the 20th Century, the essential essence of life on earth re-sold back to man to generate unlimited profits, yes its immoral, but we are all co-conspirators sadly :(

  • Comment number 2.

    @ #1 you have hit the nail square on the head.
    The bottled water story absolutely epitiomises the triumph of marketing over common sense.It hammers home the old addage that "A fool and his money are easily parted."
    More fool us.

  • Comment number 3.

    I would never buy bottled water unless I was in a place where the tap water was unfit to drink. Evian is a reversal of naive, which is what the people who buy it are! It is a shame on the human race that we buy water, transported thousands of miles, in bottles, when we have an adequate supply on tap. The damage done, to the environment (global warming, etc.) is immense. If people have the money to waste, on bottled water, why not use it, instead, to fund a well in some country which does not have an adequate supply of fresh water.

  • Comment number 4.

    Fascinating - bullet point thoughts:
    -People don't have the time, does the consumer want to have think about planet/people/poverty/inequality when they're just in need of a drink...the term 'choice editing' comes to mind, govt/industry and society working together to eradicate the unethical options.
    -'Doing the right thing' - but only when there's a market fot it, which is why the One water is superb. Will it get the big guns to play off each other?
    -Behavioural change/paradigm shift is what's needed - fill your tap water bottler up before leaving the house - who pays for that advertising???
    -A brief stint at CSR/CR towards the end, but left with the giants waiting/prepped to pounce on those emerging markets.
    -Will these markets fully understand the trends that have taken place within Europe/US, and more importantly learn from them?
    -Brand/marketing is a genius - needs to be harnessed more effectively for the 'sustainable development'

  • Comment number 5.

    The entire topic of bottled water is just so depressing, it's a victory for marketing hype over common sense and the environmental cost is not sustainable.

    A fascinating, thought provoking program.

    As an aside, does anyone know what the background music track is during the very early part when a boat is shown on Lake Geneva prior to the introduction of Nestle?

  • Comment number 6.

    One contributor said that we don't drink tap water because we don't like the taste of chlorine and other chemicals added to it. Hence the need for bottled water. Well filter the tap water in your own home, stick it in a re-usable bottle and donate £1 per litre to wells in Africa.
    Simples, schmpt!
    Ian Webb
    First Chairman of European Trade Association for Mains-Fed Water Dispensers.

  • Comment number 7.

    message for yokell, with regard to the backing music I think it was "Electricity" OMD.

  • Comment number 8.

    Apologies for the digression in the thread. Bryan, maybe you can also help out with the track that covered the 'cola wars' segment (34.15)?

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks Bryan

    I found the track, it's called The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance - very haunting piece

  • Comment number 10.

    The global bottled water market is predicted to be 174,286 million litres in 2011, if all water brands donated the equivalent of just 0.1p per litre this would provide £174,286,000 (£174 million) a year to help alleviate the problem of over a billion people in the world not having access to clean water. A big up to the One Water brand, they've helped over 1 million people already. One Water give 100% of their profits from sales to fund clean water systems to schools and their communities in Africa.

  • Comment number 11.

    Apologies, in my earlier message I omitted to credit that quote about the global bottled water market to Duncan Goose, Managing Director and Founder of Global Ethics and The One Foundation.

  • Comment number 12.

    I would add that this programme concentrated on the marketing and very little programme time was spent on the very real and negative impact of bottled water. About 5 minutes was spent on the negative side! This is so typical of business propaganda which was what, I have to say, this programme was about. If it was about the real negative impact of industrial mass civilisation (bottled water being the ultimate symbol of such an existence) then more time would have been spent on discussing the negative impact instead the opposite was the case. Indeed, even the question of mass advertising; the bombardment of advertising/brain washing was not even discussed. Industry spends billions on advertising (which we pay for in the price of the product) such is the real lack of need for so much of the crap forced into our psyche. None of this was discussed. Neither was the externalisation costs/subsidies which industry incur: the clean up of packaging, fuel costs, manufacturing costs etc.

    Let's see how well bottled water or many other products would fair without advertisement bombardment!

  • Comment number 13.

    Hello everyone - thanks for your comments here. Yokell, Bryan and Olly, plus anyone else interested in the music credits - the tracklistings for episode one have now been published on the The Foods That Make Billions programme page - featuring OMD and Dead Can Dance!

    Fiona, TV blog editor

  • Comment number 14.

    Hm glitch in the system - try copying and pasting this link to the programme page for tracklistings: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00w8cll


  • Comment number 15.

    Surely uncleidiot and others are missing the point to a degree that freedom of choice means consuming whatever one wants to consume, paying for it with what's left of ones grossly overtaxed income. Bottled water, while ecological folly, is a necessity at times of emergency where there is no alternative. That aspect appears to be overlooked completely.
    What people are actually buying into (imho) is the convenience of a beverage which 'the market' that initially created the awareness has responded to.
    As hydration goes, it beats beverages which contain alcohol, sugars or stimulants as its pure and is unanimously accepted as being a healthy consumable.
    As bottled water goes, there are also choices which have less ecolgical imapact and which (for some unknown reason) were ignored by Fiona and her team, such as the paper cartons of water which are stocked by many Tesco and Waitrose stores - these contain pure mineral water to start with and are then refillable, reusable and recyclable afterwards... Or do the production team advocate some other less healthy beverage in a less ecologically sensitive container, simply because its water inside the carton to start with?
    We can't make a multi-billion pound/euro/dollar market go away because we don't agree with it. We can make an effort to reduce its ecological impact by showing its consumers there are alternatives and thereby setting an example to the big corporations of alternative packaging solutions to their preferred (cheap yet environmentally costly) plastic!
    Neil T (aka neiltwaterguy)

  • Comment number 16.

    I found this program fascinating and would love to see one dealing with the infant formula industry

  • Comment number 17.

    Will there be other programs made on other food industries? This is a fascinating topic which could go on and on.

  • Comment number 18.

    Most of the stuff we buy is not essential to sustain life, it's just a personal preference. Bottled water is no different, it is no more immoral than a computer game or a bottle of claret (unless we import it from Ethiopia). No one forces us to buy bottled water, it's a personal choice, which is a foundation of our society. Even if we pour it down the drain rather than drink it, that's OK because one way or another it gets recycled, it is never wasted. I'd say it was more moral than baked beans, which generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
    Packaging is a different matter, and a separate topic, not confined to water.

  • Comment number 19.

    I agree with the majority of your post typicallistener even if the baked beans comparison is a little more than i'd like to think of ;)
    I disagree strongly with your statement that packaging is a separate matter / topic.

    The progamme was billed as 'the foods that make billions' or words to that effect and the facts are that the corporations which are profiting from it the most could reduce their ecological impact simply by changing their packaging. This is one and the same issue; the reasons they won't change is because they're focussed on the billions and are not prepared to sacrifice any margin for a more environmentally sound (less environmentally damaging) alternative package type.

    In the interests of transparency, I'm the founder of the only brand of water that's packaged in cartons (available in the aforementioned supermarkets but no brand name disclosed as I wouldn't want to be accused of advertising) and it's remarkable how some of the major players (including those with a 'Plan A') are openly dissmissive of our stance as the conscience of the bottled water sector. One has even told me in writing they won't change what they do and how they do it unless there's a legislative driver...

    They know there are more sensible solutions, but it's a little like the sweatshop production facilities of old and there'll be no change unless someone like the BBC asks them on camera "why not".
    Hope this explains my passion a little better that my original post.

  • Comment number 20.

    A very interesting programme ruined by the intrusive "background" music which seemed to be continuous throughout the programme. What did this add and does the BBC not think that viewers have the intelligence to follow a programme without music? The BBC needs to get a grip on this nonsense as not only is it commonly one of the most annoying and complained about aspects of TV but presumably costs a lot of money - our money and we don't like it.

  • Comment number 21.

    The water that always gets me is Fiji water - (on sale in a shop 200m from here in London).

    First - its USP is apparently that it is "Artesian water" - in other words, it comes out of a bore hole - erm, so that makes it special does it?

    And it come from Fiji, yup, Fiji. This means someone makes plastic bottles, most likely somewhere that plastics factories aren't as tightly environmentally controlled as here, and uses fossil fuels to ship them to Fiji. They get filled, and more fossil fuel is used to ship it to a country with plenty of potable water.


    If you really want Artesian water Artès in France, where the first Artesian well was sunk ,is a lot nearer than Fiji.

    I do buy bottled water in places where it’s the best way of getting a safe drink, and occasionally when I want a fizzy drink. Other than that it comes out of a tap – admittedly via a filter.

  • Comment number 22.

    Does anyone know the name of the guy who was talking about "food companies insinuating themselves into families"? I'd like to see if he has written any books about the food industry. He spoke several times but I can't find his name, he is bald with glassess, wearing a striped shirt...

  • Comment number 23.

    @ creambun

    Michael Pollan & he has written a book called 'In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto'

  • Comment number 24.

    for coruja

    Many thanks. He said interesting things. I'll likely read his book.

  • Comment number 25.

    This was quite an informative programme. However, I would just like to point out that everyone is not just buying water and throwing away their money, due to clever advertising.

    Some of us are unfortunate enough to live an area where we pay our water rates and are constantly supplied with water that turns brown, at least once in any given month. We also have higher than normal levels of chlorine flushed through the system, at least twice a week, which you can smell as soon as you run the tap and taste if you dare to drink it. I therefore buy the cheapest bottled water that I can find to ensure I have access to just plain water, as you would expect everyone in modern society to have these days.

  • Comment number 26.

    I have one major (common) criticism of the water and yoghurt episodes of this programme - they're both focused on the past 50 years and provide no historical or cultural perspective. Regarding water, particular springs have been famed since Roman times, and water from these springs was bottled and sold as early as the 19th century. What's interesting, and what's not brought up at all, are the reasons for this - the modern bottled water industry can be seen as simply using distribution technology (along with a good dose of marketing!) to provide consumers something for which there has always been a certain demand. As for yoghurt, this has been a central ingredient in Armenian, Persian, and Turkish cuisine going back thousands of years (I speak as an Armenian!) and it's not just some modern creation. The programme portrays it as quite a unique marketeers' invention but the same charge could be levelled at, say, pizza! In reality it's just another facet of increasing globalisation: good things from different cultures are taken on and promoted, and this has happened as long as there has been trade. I don't buy the implicit charge made by the programme that we're being taken for a ride by big corporations.

  • Comment number 27.

    I kept back six empty evian water botles which I filled with tap water ,put them back in the fridge.They were drank & nobody in the family noticed any difference in the water quality.One up for me over Evian water

  • Comment number 28.

    I kept back six empty bottles of a well known bottled water company filled them with tap water & put them back in the fridge .They were all drank & nobody in the family noticed any difference in water quality.We dont buy bottled water any more

  • Comment number 29.

    It a very interesting an important topic - bottled water and the ensuing 1.5M tons per year of plastic waste is completely unnecessary!

    This Facebook page has been created to collate facts, findings and creative ideas:
    Let's stay connected and keep the conversation going!

    Best wishes,

  • Comment number 30.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.