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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.


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. 


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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