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Water of Life: Agua Zalva’s Quest to Save the Colombian Páramos

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The AB InBev-owned water brand is working to protect Colombia’s future water security, Juan Alonso Torres tells LBB’s Laura Swinton

Water of Life: Agua Zalva’s Quest to Save the Colombian Páramos
The Colombian páramos are magical. Teeming with life, these ecosystems are found at high altitudes in the Colombian Andes. There you might spot a spectacled bear or, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the smallest deer in the world, the Northern Pudú. Hummingbirds, Andean Condors and the sharp, sandy-faced páramo wolf. But what’s really special is the vegetation. Up in the clouds the Frailejones trees (tall and hairy and said to resemble a hooded monk), the tussocks of unique grasses and heathers condense moisture from the air, capturing water which channels down to rivers. 

These páramos are responsible for producing 70% of Colombia’s water. Unfortunately, they are also under threat.  Farming and fracking have been encouraged by government policies, are degrading these habitats and threatening Colombia’s water security.

And so a relatively new water brand, Agua Zalva, is helping Colombians fight back and preserve these precious ecosystems. Launching in 2019, the brand promises that with every bottle sold, one square metre of páramo will be protected.

Juan Alonso Torres is non-alcoholic brands director at Anheuser-Busch InBev explains the thinking behind supporting this particular cause. “It’s truly important to protect them because we don’t have other páramos. There are a lot of issues, there’s a lot of conversation about fracking, for example, which is a threat. When we talk about global warming, of course there are fires in the páramo. That’s also terrible. So we created a water brand, Agua Zalva, with the purpose of saving the páramos that produce water. For me, from a marketing perspective, that’s beautiful,” he says.

The idea of purpose underpins AB InBev’s marketing across its suite of brands. Each brand might tackle a different specific issue, but all are concerted in their objective to create a ‘better world’. Under Juan Alonso’s remit, for example, sits malted drink Pony Malta, which is working to tackle online bullying and empower young people and has been making an impact with multiple campaigns created by its agency MullenLowe SSP3.

Of course, there’s a strategic business reason behind the brand’s existence. Water is a relatively low profitability category with high competition, but it’s a huge channel for AB InBev to reach a wider range of consumers. 

“It’s not a huge business and even when we donate some of the money to páramo, from a business perspective, we also have some issues. But we know it will pay off in other ways, in the dreamy way to a better world but also in terms of reputation. In terms of a connection with our consumers, to be a company that is not only concerned about selling sodas, malt and beer but also concerned with helping the world.”

The team are banking that the fact that the brand offers a really easy way for time-poor consumers to make a real, tangible difference and thus feel good about themselves will help the brand stand out.

“When it comes to loyalty, there’s a lot of competition in the water category, a lot of brands and we are a small brand,” explains Juan Alonso. “So, we have to play with intelligence and play smart. Our plan always will be to have this – if you buy a bottle of Agua Zalva you are going to protect one square metre of the páramo. That’s the only thing we’ll communicate. To be honest if you do not enhance the water or add another flavour, there’s no functional differentiation. So that’s our flag, our main lever.”

The brand launched in 2019 – and soon enough, the pandemic came crashing in, stunting Agua Zalva’s early growth. As people were confined to their homes, there was less need for water on the go. But now the brand is ready for a big push, and together with creative agency MullenLowe SSP3, they’ve recently put out a playful new campaign. 

On World Environment Day, Agua Zalva and MullenLowe SSP3 launched ‘Metros Cuadrados que Zalvan’, a cheeky campaign that plays on the ‘one square metre’ of real estate idea, mocking up estate agent ads for the páramo. It’s more playful approach to purpose-driven marketing than the more po-faced and sombre style we’re used to seeing.

“We started thinking about that one square metre that we are saving with Zalva. We came up with this really nice insight, that the most expensive square metre in real estate in Latin America is in Colombia,” explains Juan Alonso. “It’s almost impossible to buy a house right now. So, we started thinking, it’s very expensive to buy a square metre of land in Bogota, but just with one bottle of the water you can buy one square metre of páramo. And, to be honest, it’s going to be more important than owning a house. That clicked for us. Let’s go with the disruptive and fun approach. It’s a different way to communicate the brand proposition.”

Of course, alongside the positivity of the brand’s purpose, Juan Alonso is open about criticism too. As a bottled water brand, some on social media have criticised their use of plastic bottles. Juan Alonso says that the plastic used is 100% recycled but admits that it’s not idea. Glass, he says, would reduce the brand’s reach, increase cost and make it difficult to donate to the cause – but they are keen to find alternative options.

“Right now, we are doing the best we can do with the 100% recycled plastic. However, it’s always tricky. You go to our social media, you’re going to see ‘but you’re selling plastic!’, ‘you’re contaminating the planet!’. Yes, but we’re also saving it. That’s the bittersweet part.”

The cause, though, is something that Juan Alonso himself has bought into fully. He’s visited the páramos twice and speaks enthusiastically about the wildlife he saw there. AB InBev is collaborating with NGO Mi Paramo https://miparamo.org/, who are responsible for protecting two specific paramo habitats. However, the pandemic has actually increased pressure on this delicate ecosystem – as businesses shut, people on the brink have been moving to the paramos to cultivate crops.

“As the situation with the pandemic has intensified, so has the necessity for people to do things to survive because Colombia is a poor country. A lot of people moved to the páramos to start cultivating things and that’s terrible because you get new species introduced to the paramos, species that could mess up the environment,” explains Juan Alonso.

Looking forward, Agua Zalva is gearing up to launch a new visual identity, one that Juan Alonso says will create a greater connection with the paramos. These gorgeous environments will provide the core inspiration for the new designs. “It’s very helpful for us in terms of visual execution and communication because it’s so pretty,” he says.

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MullenLowe SSP3, Thu, 22 Jul 2021 15:58:02 GMT