Our New Obsession: Water Bottles

I march towards the front of the store with excitement where rows of water bottles stack the shelves. Should I get this blue Hydro Flask? Maybe I should grab a Nalgene instead. Those do look nice if I put stickers on them? Actually, should I get a S’well bottle instead? They look fancy, kinda got that designer look going for them. Yeah, I think that one’s it.

People obsess over the smallest things, this time water bottles. It seems like these vessels to carry liquid, something so fundamentally simple, has become a trendy item. Nalgene, S’well, and Hydro Flask are 3 of the most prominent brands now, and here I will dissect how they gained popularity.

Surprisingly, Nalgene had its humble beginnings as a laboratory equipment company, and it slowly transitioned from manufacturing Petri dishes to water bottles during the 1970s when backpackers were discouraged from using glass jars and metal cans. Outdoor enthusiasts love them: Nalgene bottle’s wide mouth designed allowed them to fit dry and wet foods into unshatterable plastic cans. These then transitioned from

I think it’s exactly Nalgene’s lack of graphic design, the blank canvas of the bottle itself, that made it so popular. From what I’ve seen, almost every bottle is flooded with stickers of some sort. Stickers reflect values and moreover personalities. Brand stickers show your sense of fashion. Company stickers show what you believe in and your values. Location-based stickers show where you’ve been. To a certain extent, stickers are extensions of you. It’s similar to why people put stickers on laptops covers.

The wide-body design of Nalgene bottles creates a natural marketing effect. The bottles often don’t fit inside the side pockets of backpacks, forcing students to carry them by the strap in one hand when walking. While one walks with it, the bottle is easily noticeable because of this wideness. It creates an instant recognition: wide bottle likely means a Nalgene bottle.

When you walk around with it, it’s easily noticeable because of its size. And because of that, when you sit down at a table, you put it on the table immediately.

Imagine you sitting in the dining hall across your friend. She slings her Nalgene onto the table. Your eyes fixate on one particular sticker and begin to follow the trail of stickers one after another. You grab it from her, spinning it slowly while examining more stickers, asking her questions like “Oh, where did you get this?” “Did you go here?”. The stickers become a conversation starter that in a way helps you connect with one another. Soon, you’ll feel compelled to buy a Nalgene and personalize it yourself. All these things, in my opinion, made Nalgenes a popular commodity. Oh, and the affordable 12 dollar price tag definitely helps.

Priced at around $35 USD, Hydro Flasks stands as the king of insulating water bottles during winter. Its minimal design, a wide range of color choices, and feather light weight makes it one of the most popular brands, especially amongst college students.

Hydro Flasks’ success comes from its combination of historic technology and modern-day updates. Between the outer and inner steel layers of the bottle is a vacuum space. Without air, the heat from your drink inside has no medium to escape through. This “vacuum technology” that keeps your drinks warm isn’t anything new. Theranos first invented this technology more than 100 years ago. Along with the old technology, Hydro Flask updated its honeycomb structure and cap design. The signature powder-coated exterior gives Hydro Flask that special unforgettable trademarked look.

For students like us on the east coast, buying a Hydro Flask isn’t a choice but a necessity. There aren’t many alternative water bottles that both keep your drink as warm as Hydro Flasks and look as stylish.

At the same time, it’s hard not to buy one when you watch your friends take a warm, hot sip of hot chocolate out of that vibrant, metallic bottle every day. Yup, I’ve fallen victim to this myself.

I think it’s appropriate to call S’well the Apple of water bottles. When Sarah Kauss founded her venture back in 2009 after an inspiring talk during her Harvard Business School reunion, she visioned the S’well brand as the luxury brand of all water bottles. It became exactly that.

It’s not the heat-insulating feature that makes S’well bottles popular, it’s simply the design. Unique to S’well, the curved unibody construction instantly separates itself from competitors. No rubber straps, no plastic rings, it’s just the cap and the bottle itself, and when the two seal together, exterior lines connect with each other perfectly to form the instantly recognizable S’well bottle shape.

Unlike Nalgenes, you rarely see stickers on S’well bottles, and that was for a reason. People want to show off the minimal, metallic, (and expensive) design. They don’t want to clutter it with stickers. In my opinion, it’s the shiny wraps, especially the gradient colors that accentuate their metallic properties. In this case, it’s really the slim ergonomic shape that resonates well with the consumers. While S’well bottles are easily scratchable, no one seems to care.

Walking into Patagonia or L.L.Bean, you’ll see racks of Nalgenes, S’well Bottles, and Hydro flasks, many of them custom collaborations were done with the brand. In S’well’s case, their revenue skyrocketed after collaborating with Starbucks during the holiday season. It’s one of the primary ways they market themselves at outlets. But for the most part, all these brands rely on natural marketing, especially in the student populations.

So what do we make of all this? On one hand, it’s crazy to think that we actually care so much about a water bottle, that something this simple can turn into a status symbol. But it’s not: we see purchases as extensions of ourselves, as reflections of our identities. New purchases can mean adopting a new identity and abandoning the old one. We’ve obsessed over restaurants, cafes, even backpacks. I’m excited to watch what we will obsess over next :)

Product designer and developer from Yale exploring future of media, philosophy, & more. www.thekevinz.com