Look at the pretty bottle.
All slender and velvety smooth; bespoke, chic, de rigueur. But like Magritte’s pipe, before you is a treachery of image.
Ceci n’est pas une water bottle.
This is a hydration fashion accessory, darling.
Moreover, it’s a S’well, the brainchild of Sarah Kauss, who, in 2010, with $30,000, quit her career crunching numbers to create the nascent field of hydration fashion.
Seven years later, the firm is worth $100m, with Kauss holding an 100 per cent stake. The growth alone is remarkable, exacerbated further when one learns that S’well hasn’t spent a dime on marketing. It’s the ad-man’s adage that good products sell themselves. But can it really be that simple?
The short answer is, of course, no. A natural entrepreneur versed in the violent fluctuations of the dotcom boom, Kauss had a plan. For a good product to sell itself, people need a reason to buy it.
S’well is a triple threat: “You need the fashion, the function, and the philanthropy,” she says. “It has to be beautiful, it has to work really well, and it has to make the world a better place – either because of reducing plastic use or because of the charities that we work with.”
It certainly ticks all three boxes. Crystal-encrusted limited runs with Swarovski, charity collaborations with (RED), one-of-a-kind high-gloss editions mimicking the lustre and sheen of various organic materials. The bottles are accessories, water couture, and collectable with it. Who cares if you’re thirsty when you look great?
“People say it’s the first bottle that they’ll leave on the table in a meeting” says Kauss. “This is how I felt when I created the product, I used to drink out of a dripping water bottle that looked like a camping canteen and hide it in my bag. Our customers now, it’s the first thing they bring out in an interview or a board meeting or something – it’s a badge.”
Kauss is in the UK for a flying visit as the firm’s international footprint treads deeper and the London team expands. S’well is a product made for the Instagram age – what better to complement a snap of your downward dog than an ornate ceramic bottle?
“I think we were lucky that we did come of age during the Instagram era,” she says. “Our customers love to show that we’re either on trend, or they’re doing good. So whether it’s their outfit of the day, or their avocado toast, or if they’re travelling and hiking, oftentimes what they’ll do is place the S’well into the picture. We have thousands of people who tagged us, we call them S’well adventures – we really embrace it.”
So-called influencer marketing, whereby celebrities and other “influencers” are paid to promote products on social media, is all very well. Far better, though, that your customers love the product so much that they promote it for free in the digital and physical realms.
“Up until now, we haven’t spent money on marketing, it’s all been organic, from person to person,” Kauss says. “And the more bottles we have out there, the more people are discovering the product. It’s that classic network effect of seeing it, telling the story, and passing it on.”
Aesthetics aside, the item truly is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Thanks to this interview, I now own two S’well bottles. The night I took them home, I filled one with boiling water before bed, slept, and used it the next morning – still piping hot – to make tea. The other I filled with cold water and ice, and it sits next to me, cubes still frozen, jingling around, some 20 hours later. It does what it says on the tin, superbly.
Two boxes ticked – the fashion and the function – but the last, and perhaps most important, is philanthropy.
“I’ve always been interested in the water crisis, and how the developing world can bring water to those who don’t have it,” says Kauss. “We chose Madagascar only because Unicef didn’t have any corporate partners there – it’s the fourth hardest hit in the water crisis, and we’re helping to bring water sanitation and education to some 500,000 people over the next two years.”
The Unicef partnership is just one of a plethora of charitable causes the firm supports. I suggest to Kauss that in the wake of Pepsi and Kendall Jenner’s Black Lives Matter faux pas, being authentic in what you do, under the critical eye of public scrutiny, is evermore important.
“It’s everything. Customers are so smart, and they know when companies are just supporting something to put it on their stationery, or a little ribbon that they put on the box. I find that we don’t even necessarily talk about all the charities we work with. We say we’re a charitable community member. We lead with a really great product and say ‘by the way, we’re a product that gives back’, and our customers, they dig, they like to find out, they want to know what we have going on. These companies that lead with it, they’re not giving their customers that space to be smart to figure it out on their own.”
There’s one final ingredient to the success of S’well, not mentioned by Kauss, because it is herself. A walk through John Lewis or a wander past Selfridges’ Christmas display is confirmation enough of the ground the firm has made. But that isn’t coincidence, Kauss has aimed high from the start. Her decision not to take on venture capital is clearly paramount to the firm’s success.
“I really wanted to grow the business my own way, and I was afraid that if I had a financial partner that had expectations of how I would sell in a certain year, I would potentially have to say yes to customers and clients I wasn’t ready for. I had to really think about the shelves that we were sitting on, to tell the story of the brand.”
Although S’well now makes more affordable models, by initially positioning itself, not with camping equipment or sports goods, but as a high fashion item first and foremost, Kauss quite literally created a new market.
“I wanted to wait until the brand was ready. So for example, I really wanted to be in Bloomingdales, and it took me two years to get in there. Bloomingdale’s said ‘we don’t sell water bottles’. I kept going in saying ‘it’s me again’, and finally they said they’d take it. But they didn’t take the product because it was a water bottle, they took it because I was able to convince them that we were a hydration fashion accessory; that we belong on their shelves."