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

What did early prototypes of the bottle look like before you saw the light about stylish design?
I honestly believed that consumers were buying bottled water because of purity — because they thought bottled water was better for them or tasted better. Here I was, living in New York City, which has the best tap water of anywhere in the country, and most people were drinking bottled water. But research shows that people drink bottled water because of convenience. They’re picking up something for lunch and would like some water to go with it. Or they’re out in a park on a hot day and they’re thirsty. For the most part, Americans don’t drink bottled water because they think there’s something wrong with their tap water. 

My early prototypes all had filters, which were expensive and ugly. So as soon as I was getting into this research and doing focus groups, I set aside those filters and said, if people were really buying these bottles because they were convenient, because they wanted a hot cup of coffee before they got to work or a cold glass of water before class, why not just bring back the old thermos technology but in a way that’s more hip and more durable? 

What’s ahead for S’well? 
Starbucks called us about developing some new things for them. We started with just 140 stores in Atlanta and Austin this last January, and it went really well. So by the end of the year we’re going to be in a lot more stores. 

The thing about having a retail partner as large as Starbucks is it gives us a much bigger platform for telling a story of the charities we want to work with next year. It’s a real message in a bottle, a real opportunity for someone to think about something every time they pick up our product or every time they take it somewhere. 

It was a little disappointing to me in the beginning that not everybody had a bleeding heart for the water crisis like I did, but if you can just get through to some of the people, some of the time — or most of the people every so often — then we still think it’s successful. Having these bigger retail partners does give us a bigger mouthpiece to tell these stories we’re excited about.

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