Reusable water bottle as fashion accessory. Who knew? Back in 2010, S’well founder and CEO Sarah Kauss certainly did, and she fought to keep the vision of her brand intact, despite all the financial pressures that come with launching a new brand. She wanted an aesthetically-driven, high-end brand and had to turn down retail offers to keep that brand vision alive.
Now, six years later, Kauss has hired S’well’s first-ever CMO, Judd Harner to take the brand to the next level, from cult following to mainstream phenomenon. The move follows recent hires of a CFO and head of sales, which yielded immediate impact for Kauss, who now wants that same thing for marketing.
“We’ve never had a CMO and not much of a marketing department, but this is the right time for the brand,” says Kauss. “I’ve been going department by department and bringing on a senior people as we’ve been growing, and as we’ve been scaling. This was the right time for S’well, we launched a new line called S’ip this year, and also are launching into new product categories and countries. So it’s perfect timing to bring a senior marketing person like Judd on, to really lead marketing and these two brands internationally, and make sure we’re staying on the right track.”
While S’well is sold in high-end retailers like Bloomingdale’s, J. Crew, Williams Sonoma, and Saks Fifth Avenue, in March it partnered with Target to launch S’ip, a more affordable version of its original bottles. the reason for the whole separate brand was to maintain the decidedly upper-class image S’Well had built over the years, while still finding opportunities to expand. A tightrope walk for any brand.
“We were lucky in the early days of S’well, up until now we haven’t spent any money on much paid marketing, it’s been largely word of mouth, social and earned media,” says Kauss. “We did a lot of heavy gifting, at places like Fashion Week and TED, and those bottles made their way around, telling our story for us. But now we need a senior marketer, get some people in who know how to take the brand forward.”
Prior to joining S’well, Harner led his own brand consultancy, working with brands like Montblanc, Warner Music Group, Zynga, and Honest Tea. He’s also a served as CMO at women’s clothing chain Chico’s, managing director of Ogilvy & Mather New York, and vice president of program marketing at MTV. Harner says he joined S’Well because it’s an exciting, young, brand on the upswing.
“The company isn’t static, plans to go beyond on product line, plans for innovation, that was critical for me,” says Harner. “The opportunity to help continue to grow a really, smart, kind company that’s winning, was something I couldn’t turn down. We spoke, and 10 days later I was working here.”
Now, Harner sees the overall brand marketing strategy as one that will build on what S’well has been doing already.
“The answer for our brand approach is already living in what’s been done. It was unconventional, but proved to be prophetic. So the brand strategy is to amplify that and take it to new levels,” says Harner. “It made fans of our customers, but you have to resist the temptation to chase media impressions because every time you do that, you get closer to becoming a commodity. We’ve been steadfast in not doing that so far, never compromising on price or production value, so remembering that as we grow, and grow smartly, is critical. “
One significant aspect Harner plans to amplify is S’well and Kauss’s sustainability and philanthropy, through its supply chain and partnerships with Unicef, (RED), and other charities. “The brand is really dedicated to that, and not many people know about it, so one of our goals is to boost awareness around those values,” says Harner. “Not only through marketing, but also through creating products made to specifically raise awareness and generate funds for these causes. That’s going to be a big part of what we do.”