A New Flavor: Charity

Given their typical concentration of youthful liberalism and cutting-edge faddishness, a college campus can be a hard place to be a bottled water mogul. Just ask University of Pennsylvania freshman Ben Lewis.

“Everyone likes to pick on the bottle water business,” he says of his fellow students. “It’s really the thing to do these days.”

That can’t be music to the ears of Lewis, whose precocious entry into the beverage business started when he launched the Give brand of bottled water last August.

Still, when Lewis explains what his business does, the criticism tends to soften. The conceit behind Give is pretty simple: the company donates ten cents for every bottle you buy to a cause. There are three SKUs. So if you buy a blue bottle, you help fight child hunger; buy a pink bottle, you help fight breast cancer; buy a green bottle, you help save the environment. If the majority of spring waters are generally equal in terms of quality and taste, as most consumers are starting to believe, the idea is that a cause might make Give first among equals.

To Lewis’ own amazement, it’s turned into a growing phenomenon, having gone from a local brand in his hometown of Pittsburgh to a large chunk of shelf space in Whole Foods’ mid-Atlantic region.

“It’s cool,” he says. “As we grow and build up our brand, the top of our priority list will be to create more ways to give. People say, add a bottle for this charity or for that one. It’s great. There’s so much potential for expansion – not only into other causes, but into other product lines down the road.”Distributors and retailers are starting to have legitimate concerns about the long-term momentum of the bottled water category. Media and environmental forces are fast turning against bottled water for environmental reasons. With that backlash spreading, but consumer habits with regard to water now strongly established, Lewis sees his company as allowing bottled water consumers to self-levy a sin tax.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that bottled water is a rational product,” he says. “At home, I don’t drink it. But there are 20 million Americans that drink bottled water every year. Give isn’t trying to reverse a consumer trend. There’s nothing I can do about that. But if Give can just leverage the power of this industry and use it as a vehicle to do some good – and I think we’re doing that – if we can, that’s the success.”

We’re not pointing Lewis out as the next big thing – although there’s obviously plenty of potential here for Give to resonate with the folks who were early adopters of bottled water in the first place – but we’re pointing out his product as the kind of clever and classy marketing innovation that can help keep the category growing.

But with any number of new causes available as SKUs, with a brand conceit that could be extended to several different kinds of products, we think Lewis has figured out something important.

He’s figured out that in cynical times, a little earnestness can be very refreshing.