When Style Over Substance Works Comments

S’Well’s got a social mission, but that’s not what attracts most customers

Sarah Kauss

Sarah Kauss became obsessed with the clean-water crisis six years ago when she attended a lecture on the topic at her Harvard Business School reunion. “This professor got up and did this presentation on how the next war of the world is going to be based on access to water,” Kauss says. “It was just one of those moments.” Afterwards, she started reading everything she could about the issue, and eventually made it her mission to rid the world of plastic bottles and help improve access to clean water around the world. 

She launched reusable bottle company S’well in 2010 with just one blue, stainless-steel bottle that kept drinks hot for 12 hours and cold for 24 hours — that also happened to be incredibly stylish. Now, it’s available in a range of sizes, color and finishes, and is the “it” new fashion accessory. S’well has partnered with TED conferences, Intel, Microsoft, Audi, BMW, the Gap, and ENK’s Coterie fashion show in NYC, among many others, and its bottles are carried by the MoMA Design Store in San Francisco, the Guggenheim Museum, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. The company sold 500,000 bottles in 2013 and doubled their sales from the year before. 

For every bottle sold, a portion is donated to WaterAid, an organization that digs wells, and other initiatives for people without clean water. S’well also works with nonprofits like American Forest, Alicia Keys’ Keep a Child Alive and the Michelle Obama-backed Drink Up campaign. 

But despite the work that S’well does for the clean-water crisis and other charities, Kauss has realized that her social message isn’t what attracts most customers to her brand. We’ll let her explain.

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