For all the bad press heaped on recessions, the truth is that lean times affect companies differently. The bottled-water business is a prime example: While mega-caps such Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) are hurting from the back-to-the-tap trend, sales are flowing into products offered by Clorox (NYSE:CLX) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE:TMO).

Conspicuous consumption dries up
More than a year ago, my Foolish colleague Alyce Lomax called the bottled-water craze "one of the weirdest episodes in the history of corporate marketing, not to mention consumer behavior." I couldn’t agree more. And while consumers were already starting to rethink their habits at that time, we may now be seeing a full-fledged paradigm shift.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that U.S. sales of Coke's Dasani brand plummeted almost 26% -- excluding sales at Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT) -- in the 12 weeks ended Aug. 8. In contrast, Pepsi's Aquafina showed a 13.8% dip, and consumers enjoyed a 5% price discount. The Poseidon of the U.S. bottled-water market, Nestle (OTC BB: NSRGY), saw its first-half 2009 global water sales slump nearly 3% on an organic basis, largely because of weakness in North America and Europe.  

For the companies in question, these trends are more than just a drop in the bucket. As of early 2008, Beverage Digest estimated that the product accounted for 9.6% and 7.9% of Coca-Cola's and Pepsi's respective U.S. sales volumes. Meanwhile, bottled water floated 9.6% of Nestle's 2008 net sales.

So, does the data suggest that bottled-water makers will continue to take a bath for years to come? Well, in all fairness, summertime promotional pricing is likely dragging down recent results. But investors should note that volumes have slipped on an annual basis: Americans drank 100 million fewer gallons of bottled water in 2008 compared with 2007. Come year's end, we could see a far worse decline.

Meanwhile, companies making good on the trend include Clorox, which has launched the filterforgood.com campaign to support environmental awareness -- and to market the heck out of its Brita home-filtration brand. Consumers who visit the site can quickly link to a product page featuring Thermo Fisher Scientific's Nalgene reusable bottles. The effort seems to be working, as Clorox management named water filtration as "one of our fastest growing categories" during the company's most recent conference call.

But in the long term …
On a global basis, growth in bottled-water demand is likely to tick higher over the next several years, driven by emerging markets. That gives international companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi the opportunity to shift their geographic exposure. Even Dr Pepper Snapple Group (NYSE:DPS) has some water exposure in Mexico and the Caribbean, but that geographic segment comprised just 7.5% of sales in 2008.  Such a re-focusing would no doubt carry sizeable costs, but it could be the right long-term move. In the meantime, I'd keep an eye out for any company developments. In particular, when it comes to the outlook on U.S. bottled-water sales, I'd want to know that management is downing a chaser of reality for every tall glass of reverse-osmosis-filtered optimism.

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Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Clorox, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo are Income Investor picks. Dr Pepper Snapple is former recommendation of Inside Value. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mike Pienciak owns shares of Coca-Cola but no other company mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy is one tall drink of delicious.