Change is being forced on the local water company for the first time in nearly 20 years.
This is an excerpt from our weekly business newsletter Stocktake.
A lot of thought has gone into the bottle of water that quietly appears on your table during your fancy restaurant dinner. “It’s minimalist, unassuming, in the background,” says general manager Rachael Armstrong. She’s talking about Antipodes, the New Zealand water company approaching its 20-year anniversary. Their bottles are created out of recycled glass, made to order, and are shorter and stockier than others. That’s by design: Antipodes doesn’t want its products getting in the way of couples looking each other in the eyes over a romantic dinner.
Over the years, Antipodes has become known as a prestige brand, water designed to clear the palate and accentuate a restaurant’s wine and food. “Plain sexy” is how this NZ Herald story describes their range of four options: sparkling or still, in 500ml or 1 litre bottles. It’s not water that’s designed to show off or stand out. “The water’s not the hero. It’s the food and the wine and the fit-out and the people and the experience,” says Armstrong. “This is just nicely complementing that.”
But there’s one more aspect that defines their trademarked brand, and that’s the glass. “We go clear so you can see the natural purity of the water,” says Armstrong. Antipodes water, which comes from an aquifer in Whakatāne, is between 50-300 years old and is high in silica. That’s why it tastes so light and fresh compared to tap water. “It gives our water a really smooth mouthfeel,” she says.
Since 2003, Antipodes hasn’t changed its products. But, in 2022, a time when many businesses have been exposed to uncertainty, from staffing shortages to rising costs and supply chain issues, the company has faced its own looming drama. For the first time in its near-20 year history, the company is being forced to make a change.
From this week, its 500ml bottles will only be available in green glass.
Why? The story is a classic for the Covid age. When Antipodes’ glass manufacturer announced a factory upgrade earlier this year, it needed new moulds, which Antipodes promptly ordered from China. There, where lockdowns have wreaked havoc on manufacturing processes and shipping routes, the new moulds made it onto a ship that then went on a bit of a world tour. “It got delayed going out of China then it went up to Korea, then went back to China,” says Armstrong. “It got stuck in the sea and got delayed so many times.”
It became clear that Antipodes was about to run out of its clear 500ml bottles. “It’s quite stressful when they tell you there are only [a few] left and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Armstrong. Running out of stock means losing business. In the highly competitive bottled water market, there’s always another option. “It’s not like you’ve got another flavour in your portfolio,” says Armstrong. “You can lose a lot of business.”
Executives brainstormed about how to cope with the change. “We didn’t want to go into another bottle. We didn’t want to go into plastic,” says Armstrong. Manufacturers told them they could still keep their bottle shape, but it would need to be in green. Could they play up the green factor? Call it a limited edition run? “None of it felt honest or straightforward,” she says.
Finally, as supplies of Antipodes 500ml bottles began running out around the world, they decided the best play was to just be honest. “Let’s just tell the real story,” is how Armstrong describes the play. So here they are, explaining to customers how the world conspired to force a change on them that no one wanted, but they’re accepting and opening up about anyway. “It’s green glass or no glass”, the label on a bottle of Antipodes water reads now. “We knew you’d prefer the true story over a manufactured one.”
Supplies should be affected for the next few months. Armstrong says it’s been a lesson for everyone. “This is a new world,” she says. “You can’t spin the brand in the traditional way.” I can think of a few companies who could learn a thing or two from that.