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What Water and Schoolchildren Teach Us About Consumer Marketing

Updated for 2021

I recently came across an interesting study conducted by Stanford marketing specialist Szu-chi Huang, Ph.D., in collaboration with UNICEF. Conducted in Panama, the study attempted to determine the best way to encourage school children to drink more water.

The study picked four similar schools within 10 miles of each other and randomly assigned them to use one of four different types of posters, that said:

  1. “Drink Water — Make Friends”

  2. “Drink Water”

  3. “Drink Water — Be Healthy”

  4. “Drink Water — Learn Faster”

In the end, they found that the best performing poster was the straightforward one that said “Drink Water — Be Healthy” because it matched with a 31% increase in water consumption. Meanwhile, the school with the poster that simply said “Drink Water”, saw a 48% decrease in water consumption. You can read more about the study here.

Now, why does this matter to business leaders? Because it serves as a large summary of the next generation of consumers.

One of the largest points we emphasize is that, with the rise of social media and social awareness, brands and companies are being held to higher standards than before. For example, consumers care about more than just getting a cup of coffee, they now care about whether coffee is being sourced from ethical farms.

This study lends to three main points for business leaders to learn:

1) Good-Old Honest Truth

From the 1870s to the 1950s, cigarette companies were able to convince consumers that cigarettes weren’t just healthy but actually good for you! Companies like Camel used marketing lines like “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” to convince consumers that they should buy cigarettes. It worked.

However, with today’s access to information, that sort of manipulation has become incredibly more difficult to achieve. Every product and service on the market has a list of opinions and facts on the internet. These days, the best marketing is often simply about telling the truth.

In the study, the poster that stuck with the direct truth, that drinking water makes people healthier, was the one that saw the most success.

2) Understand Your Customer's Mentality

In the research done before the experiment, it was found that a majority of the students saw a correlation between drinking water and being healthy. Therefore, part of the explanation for the reason that poster did so well was that it reaffirmed what the school children believed.

Similarly, businesses need to understand the importance of understanding their customers. One of the largest mistakes we see small and medium business leaders make is underestimating the importance of actually interacting with and interviewing their customers.

When the iPod first came out, it wasn’t alone and, by some standards, not the best option in the market. However, it was undoubtedly the most successful. A large part of that is credited to the marketing efforts of Apple. While other competitors spent their time advertising features of their products like the fact their products had 5GB of storage, the iPod’s advertising slogan focused on saying “a thousand songs in your pocket”. Either way, both products had 5GB of storage, but Apply did the proper job of figuring out what mattered to the consumer. The consumer didn’t care/understand what 5GB meant, but the average consumer could definitely imagine a thousand songs.

When marketing or attempting to convince a customer, remember to step out of what you feel is important and take a moment to understand what is important to the customer. Look for ideas or thoughts that the customer is already familiar with, and build on those!

3) Lead, Don't Just Instruct

The most interesting point, for me, in the study was the fact that the poster that simply instructed the students to drink water saw a decline in water drinking. The researchers explained that humans hate being told to do something without an explanation. We inherently resist being controlled by others, and today’s consumer craves the ability to make decisions.

For business leaders, this extends beyond just dealing with consumers, it is important to think of when dealing with your employees/organization. Countless studies and real-life examples have shown us that effective leadership is hardly ever about just handing out instructions and commands. Rather, when attempting to lead an organization of today’s workers, it’s important that every instruction or command comes with a clear explanation of why it matters.

A really simple way to achieve this is to set up company values or goals which are communicated often. Then, whenever a big change or task needs to occur, rather than simply instructing people, leaders can also point to the goals/values. So instead of “Go do X!” it becomes “Go do X because it’ll help us achieve Goal A!”. Many studies have shown that the second version reaps much better results.


I think we’re often quick to ignore kids because they don’t possess a large market buying power. However, it’s interesting to remember that today’s child is tomorrow’s consumer and success often goes to the business that is able to use today to set up for tomorrow.

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