Altruistic Water Easy To Swallow

August 25, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — A local businessman has decided to make the $8-billion-a-year bottled water industry a bit more altruistic.

Joe Guglielmi recently launched a new line of bottled water that raises money for health-related charities. His product debuted this month at 180 Meijer stores in five states and he is donating a percentage of all sales to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the world’s largest funder of Type 1 diabetes research.

Guglielmi calls his product Water Fight and a six pack of 20-ounce bottles is selling at Meijer stores in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky for $2.99.

“My tag line is ‘Pick A Fight, Not A Flavor,’” he said in reference to the fundraising part of his product.

But Guglielmi isn’t limiting his Water Fight only to combating juvenile diabetes, as he sees himself rolling out other cause-related products down the road.

“My vision is when you go up to a shelf at Meijer’s or other stores, you’ll see Water Fight-Breast Cancer or Water Fight-Heart Disease or Hunger. I’ve also printed up labels for juvenile diabetes and HIV AIDS,” he said.

“So consumers pick the social affliction that is relevant to them, and essentially what they’re doing is directing where a percentage of the profits go.”

Guglielmi said JDRF will receive 10 percent of every bottle of Water Fight sold at Meijer stores, which works out to be a 30-cent donation from each six pack purchased.

“We try to look at the needs of our communities with creative eyes. Water Fight is a creative but important way to give back to the community. JDRF is a partner we understand as critical to the health and welfare of thousands of our customers,” said Stacie Behler, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Meijer Inc.

Guglielmi could have priced Water Fight higher as consumers are normally willing to pay a premium for a cause-related product. But he kept his price at 50 cents for each 20-ouncer in a six-pack because the bottled-water industry is keenly competitive, with the world’s largest sellers having made price a vital selling point.

“The dynamics of that category have changed immensely since I started this project two years ago. What we’re trying to do is stay competitive with Coke and Pepsi, so we can have some velocity,” he said.

The industry has turned bottled water into a diet drink for overweight Americans and as a can’t-do-without staple for the health conscious. That marketing ploy resulted in rising sales and a price war between Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Nestlé, water’s biggest names. Shelf prices have remained fairly low, despite higher oil prices that have hiked the cost to produce the plastic bottles and wrap, and to transport the product.

“It’s been an interesting endeavor and Meijer has been fantastic to work with,” he said.

If Guglielmi looks familiar, he should. Some may know him as co-founder of the Tuscan Express, a popular Cascade Township restaurant, and others may have run into him at the Van Andel Institute where he sits on the Hope on the Hill board.

During his last few years in the restaurant business, Guglielmi said he began to yearn for something different. So in 1999 he started looking into the possibilities of bottled water, and said what he saw looked promising.

“Then essentially, in 2003, I came up with the name Water Fight and consulted a dear friend of mine who is an investment banker, a lawyer out of Chicago, and he said, ‘If you don’t run with it, I will,’” Guglielmi said, laughing. “And since then, I’ve never looked back.”

Despite its short shelf life so far, Water Fight has already rubbed elbows with a few celebrities. Guglielmi’s product was the unofficial water of the Michael Moore Film Festival, which drew a record crowd of 72,000 to Traverse City during the first week of August. The event was Moore’s second film fest and Water Fight has been invited to his third.

“It was a great success and I got a lot of buzz from it. I’ve been invited back to supply the water next year,” said Guglielmi.

But before meeting Moore, Guglielmi met with Bono when the leader of U2 and campaigner against world hunger spoke at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids’ annual dinner in May. More than 2,000 attended the widely covered event at DeVos Place, but millions more may have seen news footage of Bono holding a bottle of Water Fight.

“He put his arms around me and told me to get some [Water Fight]. About halfway through his speech, he asked for bottled water and they brought out Water Fight. He showed it to the camera and drank it. It was one heck of a gesture on his part,” he said.

Guglielmi hopes to have Water Fight selling in up to four more large retail outlets soon and making charitable contributions in some of the nation’s biggest and thirstiest markets.

“I’ll be walking on air if that happens.”    

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