When Parle bought the Italian bottled mineral water company Felice Bisleri in 1969, they were going out on a limb. At
that point there was no market for bottled water, and the problem was: how do you sell something colourless, odourless
Parle liked the name Bisleri,because as chairman Ramesh Chauhan says, "The Italian name added a dash of class." I can only think of one other Italian who has so successfully integrated into the Indian milieu—apologies to our First Lady. An early advertising campaign showed a butler proffering two bottles of Bisleri with the hookline "Bisleri is veri veri extraordinari"—the misspelling deliberately highlighting the foreign in a uniquely Indian way. Bisleri, like biro or Xerox, has become synonymous with the product, and if you ask for "ek Bisleri" at a roadside shop, you’re likely to get any brand.
As the water wars hot up, the government seems to have abdicated its responsibility to provide safe, clean drinking water and handed it over to the ever-thirsty private sector. The market for bottled water in India is currently estimated at Rs 1,000 crore, and is growing at an astonishing 55%. Apart from biggies like Bisleri, Bailley, and Hello, India has close to 200 brands—80% of which are local. Most have chosen names that indicate freshness, purity, naturalness —Raindrops, Silver Springs, Pristine, Spaa Aqua, Himalayan—but some have less happy associations. The unfortunate truth is that the Hindi for ‘drink’ sounds awfully like the English for piss. My favourite is the Rajasthani brand that indicates that the drinker is merely a middle-man, the necessary processing plant to produce the "real" product: it is simply called Pee Mee.
This article originally appeared in Outlook Delhi City Limits, May 15 2006.