The question that people ask me when I lift my hot-pink KOR ONE water bottle to my mouth isn’t, “Where did you get that?” It’s, “What is that?” I don’t blame them, really. There’s nothing about this KOR water bottle that reminds you of any other water bottle on the planet–it looks more like a cross between EVA in Wall-E and the pneumatic tubes that we used to use to ferry our deposit slips to drive-thru bank tellers. But according to Ravi Sawhney, whose RKS Design created the vessel in partnership with KOR Water, it’s that striking first impression–and the interaction that follows it–that was needed to wean us humans off disposable plastic-bottled water.
In 2005 a new company named KOR Water founded by Eric Barnes and Paul Shustak handed their dream down to Sawhney’s team: It was an idea called “Water ReDesigned,” and their hope was that they could get people to stop using plastic water bottles by changing the way people drank water. After an analysis of the reusable water bottle market at the time, RKS believed the number of products hitting shelves was about to come to a head. “We predicted there would be a commodification of water bottles,” says Sawhney. “And there has been.” As the market flooded with bottles, they realized that no one was positioning their vessels of water as anything but utilitarian. They saw a competitive opportunity where they could position the act of eschewing disposable bottles as almost…virtuous.
Functionality also had to provide these same aspirational feelings for the user. They had to measure how it felt on your lips–a round edge is much softer than most bottles–to the way it pours out–too large of an opening results in gurgles while sipping-in-motion; too small of an opening won’t accommodate ice cubes. A hinge that could be opened with one hand, and closed securely was also important, as were psychographic questions like: “Would you feel comfortable walking into a meeting with it?” When the designers looked at adding a handle, they realized it could almost become a prized accessory–and quickly the bottle became more of a conversation starter than just a way to carry water. Suddenly bringing your own water in this striking object became a more luxurious choice than a flimsy, disposable plastic bottle.
Long before the letters “BPA” had even entered our lexicon, KOR’s team had recognized that bisphenol A was a non-desirable component they did not want in their bottles. But removing this compound from plastics at the time was a nearly inescapable challenge. In fact, after KOR launched, the Swiss company Sigg, who had long marketed themselves as BPA-free, admitted that they had found BPA in the lining of their aluminum bottles. Recently the FDA published a BPA study that outlined more strict steps it would take steps to remove it from food packaging and production.
But in 2005, it was still a fact of life for plastic, something that RKS saw as an opportunity for true innovation. Enter Eastman Chemical Company, who Sawhney’s team had worked with many times before on products like the RKS Guitar. Sawhney remembers asking them: Did they have any durable plastic material that was BPA-free? “Eastman said, not yet,” says Sawhney, but a longstanding business relationship with RKS ended up making an impossible material possible: Eastman researched it, and realized another material in development could be adjusted to ensure it was BPA-free. Soon Eastman had created Tritan, a copolyester that was not only made without BPA, it actually improved upon plastic’s durability. The nonproprietary nature of the material meant it was able to revolutionize the entire water bottle industry: Camelback also used Tritan in their products.
CLEAN WATER PLAN
But the bottles themselves were only part of the solution. RKS then helped KOR assemble a cause marketing program that united the bottles with a mission. KOR’s proceeds now benefit clean water advocates as well as plastic-related issues container recycling and recovery. To help connect people directly to the four different causes, the colors of the bottles are color-coded to the donations. Another small but endearing detail can be found whenever the consumer takes a drink: Tiny removable paper discs of paper in the lid reinforce the clean-water messaging, but can also be exchanged or personalized by the consumer.
The most recent development for KOR includes artist series bottles, where graphics reinforce the cause-motivated colors: These bottles will sell for $5 more and that entire fee will go directly to the cause, another detail RKS hopes the consumer will proudly tell those around them. “We’re speaking to them and we also empower them to speak,” says Sawhney. “It feels good to be asked about your water bottle.” As far as other 2010 offerings, the KOR ONE’s large size (750 ml) has been considered to be too unwieldy for some–and is difficult to fill in some drinking fountains–and Sawhney hinted that KOR was considering products in different sizes.
Although sales have been strong–KOR did over $1 million in their first year and expect $7 million in 2010 with these new vessels–and KOR’s message has been widely covered in the media, it’s the anecdotal evidence like my story that fascinates Sawhney the most. People will take their KOR ONEs into nice restaurants. They’re proud to hold them as they walk down the street. They become advocates for the cause without even knowing it. In fact, Sawhney found the bottle started to have the same effect on himself. “You get this religion,” says Sawhney. “When you look at someone drinking from a plastic water bottle, you start to look at them like, yuck, do you know what you’re doing? I’m even starting to evangelize a little.”
If you have a design and sustainability story to share, let us know about it! Check out the brand new Designers Accord Web site. And follow us on Twitter @designersaccord to hear what the Designers Accord community is thinking about.
Browse more Designers Accord Case Studies