When Style Over Substance Works Comments

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

  • By Eveline Chao
  • January 15, 2014

DailyWorth: When did you realize that style was just as important to your success as your environmental mission?

Sarah Kauss: When I was doing the text for my first website with a consultant named Amanda Neville, it almost looked like I was running a nonprofit that happened to have a product. It was all facts and pictures of floating plastic bottles and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and how the patch is now larger than the country of Canada and a mile deep in some places. When I first heard about this, I thought everybody should know. They would never use a plastic water bottle again! 

So I did all this research on the water crisis and worked so hard on putting research papers together, and I bring them into Amanda’s office and say, “This all has to go on the website!” She's looking at me, and is like, “Yeah, consumers are never going to read this, and, by the way, you’re selling a product here.” 

It took me a long time to think backwards — sell a beautifully made, well-designed product and then back into what you want: [for instance], one or two bullet points of what that message is, what you might want someone to take away. It was a real evolution for me to understand that.

What are customers looking for when buying a product? 
Customers pick up the product and think it’s beautiful before they even know what it is. Usually what they do is pick it up, shake it a little bit, take off the top and look at it, and, oftentimes, people smell it. (I think people have maybe had bad experiences with aluminum bottles that had a bad metallic smell. Stainless steel doesn’t get that smell.) Then they realize this is a water bottle — I could probably use something like this. 

Before they know the message, before they know about the charity, they’re really attracted to the color and the shape. 

Your beautiful office space and website almost make S’well look like a design firm or fashion company.
I really think about us that way. We have a couple full-time designers, and most of our team is in partnerships and marketing. If we keep saying we’re the high-fashion bottle, we better be. My CFO said last year maybe it would be less expensive to have this company in Florida or another place, not in New York. But we’re now getting invitations from top designers that want to design a wrap that goes around our bottle. We do the Coterie fashion show, the ENK ready-to-wear fashion show in NYC, and the gift to VIP buyers and sellers last year was a S’well bottle. 

It gives us a lot of street credibility that we are in New York, and we do have this beautiful office that we’re really proud to have people [see]. We think of ourselves as a design firm that happens to be making a water bottle, instead of a water bottle company. That’s why we are working with the J. Crews and the Nordstroms of the world instead of sports stores. 


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