Jon Olafsson is considered “The Richard Branson of Iceland.” He is an older, but handsome gentlemen, and his preferred language is Icelandic. After years within the media and entertainment industry of Iceland, he and his son, Kristjan, bought the Olfüs Spring, a remote spring formed over 4,500 years ago, and launched Icelandic Glacial Water (IGW) in 2004. He is the closest I’ve come to meeting a modern mogul. He travels more places in a month than I have traveled in years.
As a junior strategic planner, I dreamed of this kind of client. They were small but ambitious–a lot like Iceland, as I would come to learn, and ready for a change. Icelandic Glacial Water was a product I could believe in. They were the first water brand to become entirely carbon neutral, they offered a deliciously pure product filtered through thousands of years old lava rock, and most importantly, they needed help.
After the initial client conversations and a quick deep dive to learn everything I could about the water industry, Jon gave us one task: Use Icelandic Glacial Water to bring Iceland to the world. It was an ambitious task consisting of one part tourism campaign, one part cultural campaign and one part retail campaign, but there was a catch. We needed to do all of this with only the packaging and a few communication pieces, all supported by a modest budget.
AN UPHILL BATTLE The odds were stacked against us.
Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water. It’s a natural resource that is mined, marketed and sold to create a substantial $10 billion industry in the U.S. alone. In 2011, the average American consumed 9.1 gallons of bottled water, a 4.1% increase from 2010.¹ In this highly saturated market, brands are finding any way they can to differentiate from competitors while rationalizing the purchase of a product that is just as easily gathered from the tap. Brands that “get this” know that branding is a crucial factor in the category and will use various tactics to build loyalty through any point of differentiation whether it’s the water source, the filtration process or the packaging itself.
When Icelandic Glacial Water came to us, they were already late to the game. The market was cluttered with plenty of brands fighting for attention. The major players started releasing line-extensions filled with flavored or enhanced water options. IGW was pure, unadulterated water with no plans to be anything but that. We couldn’t simply rely on the water characteristics to make the impression that we needed.
As a brand trying to differentiate itself from the stiff competition, Icelandic Glacial Water thought they simply needed a new look to update their packaging and logo. But the truth is, they were playing with the big boys–The Pepsis and the Coca-Colas that were supported by huge budgets, extensive research and deep distribution channels. IGW was a small, family owned company and has pennies compared to the major players. In an industry where distribution ensures success, they were fighting for a presence even in the smallest of retailers.
Beyond this, high brand loyalty in the bottled water category was the norm. Most consumers already knew what they wanted to purchase before they even entered the store aisle. We knew it would take more than a new package to stand out and encourage people to actually stop, look and change their behavior.
We knew Icelandic Glacial Water couldn’t afford to play it safe. IGW needed to exude the courage, strength and just the right kind of swagger to forge their own path and make people stop and take notice. It wasn’t enough to just be another water. We needed them to own an idea–an idea that extends beyond the product, and beyond any advertising.
We knew it would take more than just a new package to make people stop, notice and change their behavior.
GOING TO THE SOURCE Finding the essence through unconventional research.
When you’re the underdog, resourcefulness is the only option. Conventional research will only lead to conventional solutions. As an agency accustomed to working with large clients with big budgets, we needed to throw out our own rules and find new ways to uncover the truths related to the premium water category. We started by launching our own research to understand the motivations and behaviors related to bottled water. We used peer-group recruiting to get the right people together quickly and held multiple focus groups with self-identified “premium-water drinkers.” Over pizza and water, we probed about everything from how they felt about their favorite brand to loyalty, origin and packaging. The insight from these groups proved invaluable. It reinforced the notion that brand loyalty was unreasonably high and informed us that there were very few concrete associations with Iceland.
Armed with this information, we took to the grocery stores and convenience stores where people made their purchases. And we watched. We observed. We asked questions when we needed to, but for the most part, we wanted to see how people shopped. Again, it was clear that the purchase decision was made prior to entering the store. Except for the flavored-water category, very few ever stopped to cross-shop water.
It’s a low-involvement decision where most have already made up their minds. In this category, the brand of choice was overwhelmingly Fiji. It was exotic and reminded people of paradise, but surprisingly, most people didn’t even believe the water originated from Fiji. Rather, they bought into and believed in the romanticized story of Fiji that easily conveyed the essence of the brand. We knew that the physical location would be less important to the real solution and instead needed to craft a story that embodied what Iceland stood for and symbolized. It’s a story we could only write by truly understanding Iceland.
So we approached the agency leadership and made the case that the only way to really understand Iceland would be to experience it firsthand. Team One saw this as a worthwhile venture and invested the funding to support the research process. With the support of the agency, we packed our bags and headed to the only place that could inform the story–Iceland herself.
Icelandic Glacial Water is a product of Iceland–a real, all-natural export from a very different type of exotic destination. Filtered through lava rocks and bottled directly at the spring, we knew from there that we would have an interesting story to tell. Beyond visiting the spring, we visited Reykjavík, talked to people in both bars and local businesses and fully immersed ourselves in the culture.
While we were there, something transformative happened where we could see, feel and taste how Iceland was truly a unique place. It conjured thoughts of remoteness, cold and ice, but it was the nature of the people and the spirit of the nation that truly set Iceland apart from other places. It was a land of fierce individuals, breathtaking beauty and endless contradictions. It’s where volcanoes met glaciers and fermented shark was chased down with the Black Death.² It’s a proud nation of peaceful Vikings that live epic lives the rest of the world can only dream of.
“It’s like we punch above our weight in every possible way...we overconsume, overdrink, we over-live, we overbuild our banks to more than 12 times the size of our economy.” - Halla Tomasdottir, Audur Capital
KINDLE THE FIRE Crafting the Icelandic story.
In Iceland, nature is big. It is large. It is epic. It looks more beautiful in person than it does in pictures. Nature also seems to play a bigger role in the lives of Icelanders. Life in Iceland can be as epic as the landscape. This “full-on” approach to life is one that is uniquely Icelandic and one that could inspire and fulfill people that crave a more adventurous lifestyle. We knew if people started to romanticize about Iceland and the Icelandic way of life, we would be successful in bringing Iceland to the world.
The reality is that in a post-recession world we are all living more reserved lives. Instead of thinking big, we are thinking small. Instead of chasing new goals, we’re scaling back our old ones. We often find ourselves living a limited version of our lives. But Icelanders don’t believe this. They believe in a world where we are driven by a sense of adventure that keeps our passion alive.
Iceland is striking, powerful and awesome–in a word, it is epic. This is an approach to life that permeates all aspects of the culture. Icelanders enjoy unmatched access to this epic life. We knew that IGW could be the symbol for Iceland while giving people permission to live this life.
People need permission to live life for all it has to offer.
A SAGA TO BELIEVE IN Bringing the idea to life.
It wouldn’t have been enough to just change the packaging. Instead, we defined a positioning territory that was as unique and true to Iceland as it was to the brand. In a word, the brand essence would be “Epic.” From here, we would further position IGW around the idea of “Living Life Large.” By looking at the category conventions along with the cultural context of Iceland, we defined an essence and positioning that the brand could own for years to come. Ultimately, this would help inform all aspects of communication, including the packaging, shelf presence, and brand behavior.
Once we defined the essence of the brand, we developed a full brand architecture that encapsulated both the brand and Iceland.
Essence: Epic Positioning: Live Life Large Brand Personality: Fearless, Genuine
IGW was a much smaller brand than many of the competitors, so we needed to develop communications that would spark conversations that live bigger than typical and expected messaging. We started with the tagline, The Source of an Epic Life, to clearly tie IGW to the promise of leading an epic, Icelandic life. It celebrates the fearless attitude of Iceland, life at its most awesome, nature at its most powerful and water at its purest.
While working closely with creative and design teams, we developed an entirely redesigned look and feel for the brand. Knowing this was a low-involvement decision and a high-brand loyalty category, there was an added burden to create packaging that was disruptive and forced people to rethink their purchase in the store aisle. Taking inspiration from Icelandic design and the spirit category, we developed packaging that conveyed the epic nature of the brand story. By incorporating unexpected colors, a custom font and an image of Iceland so good the country wanted to purchase it for its library, we were able to bring Iceland to the shelf.
Beyond this, we also developed strong language and visuals for use in both the aisle and in other communications. The language attitudinally gave Icelandic Glacial Water a uniquely Icelandic voice while incorporating a strong, fearless element of humanity that had been absent from the category.
HEADLINES Formed by fire. Shaped by ice. Settled by vikings. Inhabited by goddesses.
We see your Alps and raise you an active volcano.
EMBARKING ON AN EPIC LIFE Delivering results that matter.
Icelandic Glacial Water originally asked us for a new package and a few communication pieces, but this would not successfully achieve their business objectives and would not effectively bring Iceland to the world. Instead, we developed an idea and a distinct point of differentiation that was bigger than just a package or a print ad. The idea lives as a full brand platform to inspire brand behavior, employees and creative work for years to come. IGW now has a stronger position that is easily communicated to and believed in by wholesalers, retailers and consumers alike.
We didn’t merely create an on-shelf solution. We developed a full branding and communications platform.
The Icelandic Glacial marketing team has embraced this positioning with open arms and continues to push us to go further. IGW first came for a short-term project, but now the relationship extends into channels beyond conventional retail. As the relationship grows, IGW is now interested in exploring new ways to bring this concept to life, further demonstrating they have the courage from the inside out to push this brand to new heights.
Icelandic Glacial Water couldn’t afford to outspend the competitors; they needed to out think them. In a category saturated with strong competition and big budgets, we created a solution as epic as Iceland.