CHICAGO — Move aside Aquafina, Evian, Mountain Valley and Fiji.
Chicago is introducing its own brand of water, Chicagwa, sourced from the expansive freshwater body that is Lake Michigan, and processed through the city’s water treatment plants.
In other words, Chicago tap water in a can.
A limited run of Chicagwa tap water will be packaged in cans featuring six colorful designs created by local artists, from a hot dog in a boat to a depiction of the Chicago’s historic Water Tower, where the unusual branding campaign was unveiled May 3. The cans will be given away free at various events throughout the city this summer and at locations including Real Good Stuff, Wiener’s Circle and Manny’s delicatessen.
The idea is not so far-fetched. While brands like Evian and Fiji are sourced from a natural spring and an artesian aquifer, respectively, PepsiCo’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani are essentially purified tap water.
The city’s latest marketing effort highlights Chicago’s access to Lake Michigan — the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world and an increasingly important asset as climate change exacerbates water shortages in other regions.
Late last month, Los Angeles declared a water shortage emergency and imposed unprecedented usage restrictions amid a worsening drought.
Chicago taps into the second-largest Great Lake and abundant freshwater resource with two of the largest water treatment plants in the world — the Jardine plant near Navy Pier and the Sawyer plant in South Shore. The city produces 750 million gallons of water per day, sells its water to 120 suburbs and distributes it across Chicago through 12 pumping stations, according to Andrea Cheng, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Water Management.
The pro bono Chicagwa campaign was developed by Chicago agency Quality Meats Creative, and will also feature digital billboards across the city. The cans were produced by Great Central Brewing Co.
While Lake Michigan is Chicago’s greatest natural resource and a source of civic pride, packaging the drinking water as a way to market the city is not without its risks.
A 2018 Tribune analysis found that nearly 70% of Chicago homes that used a free city-supplied testing kit found dangerous lead in their drinking water, with nearly 3 in 10 testing above 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The primary cause of the lead contamination is the aging connections between many Chicago homes and city’s water distribution system. Chicago required the use of lead service lines between street mains and homes until Congress banned the practice in 1986.
“We’re very aware that there are concerns about lead in drinking water,” Cheng said. “And we’re working diligently with City Hall to create equitable plans that leverage new federal funding to remove the lead service lines that were installed until 1986.”
Chicago has beefed up its marketing efforts this year, hoping to rebuild its battered brand as it seeks to recover from the pandemic.
The city, which welcomed nearly 61 million visitors in 2019, fell to 16 million in 2020 and was projected to attract just under 29 million last year, according to data provided by Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism arm.
The city’s image as a crime capital has also flared up during the pandemic — fairly or unfairly — as Chicago saw upward of 800 homicideslast year, the deadliest total since 1996, according to Chicago Police Department data and other sources.
In January, the city launched the “Chicago Not in Chicago” guerrilla campaign featuring video of a faux New York City bus tour highlighting the many ways Chicago has influenced the Big Apple. The campaign video tour, which was met with some derision, was supposed to travel next to London, but the planned sequel has yet to materialize.
Whether the new Chicagwa campaign holds water remains to be seen.