Selling Tap Water

Challenged to create a brand out of “nothing” by Esquire magazine, David Droga of New York ad agency Droga5 envisioned the Tap Project. The concept was simple, but the scope huge: charge New York City diners a dollar for their glasses of tap water during one week in March (dubbed “World Water Week”) and give that money to UNICEF to help provide access to clean drinking water around the world. Ads for the Tap Project, launched in 2007 with 300 New York restaurants, showed tap water as a prestige beverage in designer bottles. After all, one billion people around the world do not have access to the “luxury” of clean drinking water. “All of us take for granted the ability to get clean water through the tap,” says Kim Pucci, marketing director for U.S. Funds for UNICEF. Asked about bottled water companies’ claims that cast doubt on the safety of tap water, Pucci says, “We’re staying out of the debate.”

Lucy Liu visits a village on the Ivory Coast with UNICEF, where young girls spend their days transporting contaminated well water to their homes.© U.S. Fund for UNICEF/Chung

The Tap Project, which raised $100,000 its first year, expanded to more than a dozen cities this year and 2,300 restaurants.

The Project has a hip aura, with videos on YouTube, and celebrity endorsements from actors like Sarah Jessica Parker and Lucy Liu. It’s UNICEF’s most successful initiative to date, even surpassing the charitable response to the Southeast Asian tsunami.

Just $1 can supply 10.5 gallons of safe drinking water to one child (enough for 40 days worth of water for cooking, bathing and cleaning). The project’s continued expansion—it aims to go worldwide next year—will help UNICEF reach its goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015.

And other advertisers are challenging consumer ambivalence toward water, particularly in bottled form. Last year, Eric Yaverbaum of PR firm Ericho Communications and Mark DiMassimo of DiMassimoGoldstein (or DIGO) founded Tappening, a project pushing consumers to switch from bottled water to reusable bottles filled with tap water. They’re selling their own refillables with messages like “Think global. Drink local.”