There’s a reason that food magazines never strategically place Brita or PUR water filters in their photo shoots: most people would agree that enormous plastic pitchers are not the most attractive additions to a table setting.
But as unsightly as they are, Americans can’t seem to do without them. Ever since Brita, a German brand, introduced water filters to the U.S. market in 1988, Americans have been hooked on the taste of filtered water. Brita has been the leading brand for decades, currently dominating 70% of the filter pitcher market and found in 8% of U.S. households. But a San Francisco-based startup Soma is gamely trying to give Brita a real run for it’s money.
“As millennials, the way we think about design gave us the tools to address some of the lacks in the market,” says Mike Del Ponte, Soma’s founder and CEO. He points out that the millennial generation grew up on Apple products that are always meticulously optimized for both design and function. “Why couldn’t water filter companies make pitchers that are both beautiful and that actually work? We decided that we would take a stab at doing it ourselves,” he tells me.
Over the last three years, that’s exactly what Del Ponte and his team have been doing. The first product they created, a carafe made of sustainable glass, was widely applauded by the design community. At a price of $49, with $9.99 replacement filters, it was more expensive than most other pitchers but sold well online and at specialty stores like Williams and Sonoma. But Del Ponte wanted to go bigger and make his product accessible to a wider market. So today Soma is launching a plastic pitcher in Target stores retailing at $39.99, which is only $5 more than the Brita.
The Soma pitcher can hold 10 cups of water and is shaped much more like other filters on the market than the previous hourglass shaped carafe. But it is also more minimalistic than it’s counterparts, with a white filter holder and a simple handcrafted oak handle. “The real hero of this product is the wooden handle,” Del Ponte says. “Everything in the pitcher is made in the U.S. and the wood is sustainably harvested just 45 minutes south of San Francisco, milled in Oregon and coated in mineral oil.”
Soma has made other design choices to improve user experience that are not immediately visible. For instance, the coconut shell carbon filter produces water that tastes noticeably sweeter than the Brita, and it fills faster. The lid stays on firmly, unlike the Brita’s, which tends to be easily moved out of place, and the Soma pours more smoothly. Since many people forget to replace their filter in a timely manner, Soma created a subscription based model in which filters arrive in the mail when they are due for a change.
But Soma is also built on the idea that millennials care about more than just the utility and design of a product; they also care about a company’s values. “In the millennial mindset, people purchase items that they feel are a reflection of themselves,” Del Ponte says. “When they think of their home or their wardrobe, they want to be able to say, ‘I purchased this because it reflects something about me, whether it is my attention to design or my belief in sustainability.’”
Soma has a strong ethical core: it works hard to use sustainable materials and also donates a portion of its revenues to Charity:Water with the goal of giving one million people access to clean drinking water. All of this comes at a cost to its bottom line, but Del Ponte believes it is well worth it, because millennials will see their own values in the product. As Soma scales up through this Target partnership, Del Ponte believes the charitable aspect of the business model will allow the company to stay honest and true to its values. Since the donation system is based on each product sold, Del Ponte says the company is willing to make less of a profit on each sale if it means it will allow them to get to their charitable goal faster.
So why haven’t the other water filter brands on the market–Brita, PUR, Zerowater, Mavea, among others–not adapted to the aesthetic demands of younger consumers? Del Ponte believes that part of it has to do with their supply chain model. “Filter pitcher companies often appear to be optimizing primarily on cost reduction and margins,” he explains. “Many are owned by larger holding companies that own a number of different brands and want to be efficient in their supply chain. If they are using plastics to make chemicals in one product, they could use that same material in the pitcher, for example.” In other words, when corporations think about product development, they sometimes focus on keeping cost down at the expense of design and customer experience.
An executive at Brita explained to me that the brand is not exclusively targeting younger users, but a wider demographic that tends to be more concerned with the water itself than the vessel it comes in. “People buy a Brita filter for the practical reason that they want better tasting, healthier water,” says David Kargas, a public relations manager at Clorox, Brita’s holding company. “Our goal is to offer everyone interested in getting great tasting water from any tap–whether they are a millennial or a boomer–a product with the reservoir capacity and the style they want to help them drink more water. All from a brand that they trust and can find at virtually any store.”
Brita is also making an effort to create more interesting designs, but rather than taking Soma’s minimalistic approach, the brand has opted to offer a wide variety of flashy colors and sizes.
As a young upstart in an established market, Soma is competing with a smaller budget than the bigger corporations, but it also has fewer distractions and competing agendas. Del Ponte hopes his company will be the Brita for the millennial generation. Whether he succeeds on not depends, in part, on whether the other water filter companies are able to pivot and better adapt to the needs of younger consumers. “Millennials are very thoughtful about the products they are bringing into their lives,” Del Ponte says. “They are willing to spend a little bit more but buy fewer things. At our company, we want to be equally thoughtful in how we create our products, down to the very last detail.”