The Birth of a Brand (on Hydro Flask's Conscious Evolution)
“We were the 12-year-old kids looking in from outside the fence,” says Allan. “Nobody took us seriously.”
In short: it was time for Hydro Flask to grow up.
Hydro Flask wanted to tell the story of how they evolved from selling water bottles from the back of a pickup truck to becoming a global lifestyle brand.
It’s an inspiring tale of a company who painstakingly built their brand and culture, literally, from the ground up.
Full story printed below in Oregon Business Magazine—also linked here.
In 2009 at Deschutes County Fair, a pink, vacuum-insulated water bottle with a goofy logo made its debut from the back of a pickup truck.
It was the first time a double-walled, stainless steel bottle could keep water ice cold for more than 24 hours. Yet beyond the innovation, these bottles had a certain magic to them; people simply loved carrying them around. “It became an essential item in their day,” says Scott Allan, Hydro Flask’s General Manager. “As people left the house, they took their keys, their wallet, their iPhone and their Hydro Flask.”
Hydro Flask easily emerged from the startup’s typical “survival phase.” But besides the bottle, hardly anything else was in place. The company culture was undefined. Sales were fragmented. The media had zero interest in them.
They didn’t even have a unique supply chain. “We were the 12-year-old kids looking in from outside the fence,” says Allan. “Nobody took us seriously.”
In short: it was time for Hydro Flask to grow up.
Scott Allan joined Hydro Flask in 2012. Coming from Silicon Valley, he’d visited companies like Google, Facebook and Yelp, and noticed that each had a specific energy, which manifested into a robust and well-defined brand. “It all begins with culture,” he says. “What happens on the inside reflects how customers perceive you on the outside.”
Building Hydro Flask’s culture became Allan’s top priority—valued equally with budgets, profits and market share.
The company started by moving buildings and redesigning the interior. The spirit of Bend, OR (Hydro Flask’s headquarters), was embedded within the company—hikes before work, company ski trips or grill sessions on a sunny day. Conversations with customers informed the company’s core values: deliver delight, honor trust and champion quality. Hydro Flask hired a specialist to conduct employee interviews and further refine the culture.
Externally speaking, the company started asking the serious, fundamental questions: What are we aspiring to? Where do we need to sell our products? Which retailers aren’t a good fit?
Even without a foundation, the company’s sales eclipsed $2 million within two years. As Hydro Flask built the brand, though, it had to be careful: Clean up too many things and you kill the magic; approach it too cautiously and the brand becomes stale, tentative or superficial.
The company hired David Visnack as vice president of products, who’d previously spent 15 years building brands for outdoor apparel and accessories. “Hydro Flask already had this rare, incredible emotional appeal,” he said. “My work was to take that magic and amplify it.”
Visnack began with the colors. “We took a fashion sensibility to a hard good,” he says. He brought in an international fashion consultant to invigorate the palette and create a brand-centric color scheme. The company refined the logo, updated the powder coating and created industrially designed Flex Caps. “The product’s vibrancy and exuberance made it more than just a bottle,” says Visnack. “It was the symbol of a healthy lifestyle.”
Customer research revealed that Hydro Flask buyers, comprised of both men and women, were on the journey to self-improvement. This bottle was their daily sidekick in becoming a healthier person. Even beyond being a trustworthy and enthusiastic supporter, the product was a way to make a great moment that much better: the sip of ice-cold water after summiting the mountain; a cup of piping hot coffee along the ski lift; or a glass of chilled rosé during a summer concert in the park.
From a product standpoint, Hydro Flask fully embraced this “sidekick” role: no bells and whistles, no maintenance and no instruction manuals; just precise, purposeful, streamlined design principles that allowed the product to seamlessly enhance the adventure.
“We have this wonderful, magical, sidekick product, so we’d never want to overcomplicate it,” says Visnack, who also noted the company is especially prudent before entering new product categories. “Making products that support you in a humble and delightful way? That’s what we do. That’s our purpose. And we’ll always look at it with that lens.”
“Lukewarm” always resonated with Hydro Flask, in that the company avoided doing anything at a lukewarm level. The tagline for their growler — “Saving the world from lukewarm beer”— was an internal motivator that they loved sharing with others. One employee saw the growler tagline and made a simple suggestion: Why don’t we drop “beer”?
“That statement — ‘Saving the world from lukewarm’— became the guiding principle of the company,” says Allan. “Just like that, we stood for something.”
Instead of instinctive and accidental, the company’s decisions became intentional and calibrated. That mission determined how the company hired, where it sold the product, how it formed its internal processes. As Allan said in another interview, “Our measurement was, if an idea was ‘lukewarm,’ we’d shelve it.” It extended as a bridge to their customers, a joint purpose to “save the world from becoming lukewarm.” It was drilled down and applied to its different departments. “It wasn’t something we just put on our walls,” says Allan. “It was something we lived on a daily basis.”
Hydro Flask continued attending trade shows and conventions. As industry peers approached their table, the team noticed something new. “Customers came up to us and didn’t just say ‘we love your product’ or ‘we love your company,’” says Allan. “They were saying, ‘We love your brand.’”
On the business side, Hydro Flask was growing steadily—entering premium distribution channels and scaling with the right retail partners. The company received offers for acquisition, but Allan was hesitant; outside investment might compromise the culture his team had so painstakingly built.
Along came Helen of Troy, a Texas-based global consumer products company that boasted a track record of honoring existing cultures. Helen of Troy admired what Hydro Flask had built internally, promised to not disrupt the brand and brought tremendous value in expanding the company internationally.
In 2016 Helen of Troy purchased Hydro Flask for $210 million—four times the company’s previous annual revenue—without replacing a single employee or altering the culture.
Hydro Flask is now a global brand. It has more than 100 products across four categories—hydration, coffee, food, and beer, wine and spirits—which are sold in more than 20,000 retail storefronts worldwide. The company recently expanded its growing global presence to the Asia-Pacific market with distribution in Australia, Japan and Korea, and continues to garner international accolades as the recipient of several Red Dot, GOOD DESIGN™ and iF Design Awards.
Even so, Hydro Flask’s evolution as a multi-category brand shows no signs of slowing down. The company launched into Soft Goods in 2018 with the release of its award-winning Unbound Series™ soft sided coolers, and this spring will mark yet another category debut with the upcoming Journey Series™ insulated hydration pack, set for release in April 2019. With each expansion, the company maintains its industry-first focus on temperature retention and durability, while adhering to brand values and purposeful, quintessential design elements.
Most importantly, Hydro Flask has grown to represent not just a water bottle, cooler or pack, but a lifestyle—a commitment to savor life’s special moments, to live healthily and hydrate regularly.
And as that funky, colorful water bottle continues to delight and support people all over the world, each ice-cold sip reminds users of an essential truth: An extraordinary journey is anything but lukewarm.