Better me, Better World with Kor
Eric Barnes’ Quest to Make a Difference, One Hydration Vessel at a Time
If you check out Kor Water’s website or Eric Barnes’ Kor water blog, you’d think: “Wow, this guy is really passionate about water.” He probably does have a genuine passion and commitment to celebrating hydration—one of the pillars of human survival—but I can’t help but ask myself… Has he always been so passionate about it? He also built a highly successful website designed to help students prepare for daunting college exams such as SAT tests.
Was that his passion too? What is he more passionate about? Water or helping students pass SAT tests? It seems he dedicated his entire psyche to making both succeed through genuine commitment. His ability to focus his passion on whatever he desires to grow complements his entrepreneurial drive. According to Barnes, his mantra is “Anything is possible.” In the same vein, he also told us directly, “Right now, I think I can do anything.”
Barnes has not always felt that way. He’s accomplished a lot and has a ridiculous amount of achievements under his belt which have earned him what would easily be considered a successful career. However, despite all the notable achievements including: attending Princeton, having great careers in investment banking and strategic planning for HBO and CMI, he found himself feeling unfulfilled and complacent with the pace of things. According to Barnes, he found a certain kind of confidence in his early thirties to really hear the voice inside telling him that: “it’s okay to risk and fail.” He says that he knew deep down that he was passionate about entrepreneurship and that he could fail, but also that he could succeed. He admits, “I would’ve been a lot further down the line if I would’ve realized these things in my twenties, but hindsight is 20/20.”
Son of Odin
As Barnes described his relationship with his immediate family, you could see a slight smirk that indicated a kind of rivalry. As the youngest son, he had to live up to a lot of pressure due to the standards that his brother and father had already set with their careers. However, Barnes said with a smile “although they were successful as engineers, they didn’t have a business sense between them, so we were always competitive in that sense. They were already doing great, my brother attended M.I.T.; they both had great careers and I was just sort of like the Alex B Keaton character in the corner reading the Wall Street Journal”
There was this huge axe-like hammer thing in his office that reminded us of Thor and we had to ask: “Is that Thor’s hammer?” Barnes quickly and confidently answered: “Yes.” We then asked him if Thor was his favorite character, to which he replied “Absolutely. When I was in school and they assigned us to write any question we wanted and answer it, my question was ‘If you could be one superhero who would you be and why’ and my answer was ‘Thor.’ Thor has always been my favorite character and the reason for that is his humility. He comes down to earth, falls in love, gets banished and continues to defend Earth even against the will of his own father. It’s about his honor code; I think.”
Youth and Professional High School Gossip
We weren’t surprised to find out that Barnes was class president in high school; many of the successful entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed seem to have been at some point. His entrepreneurial seeds began to sprout when he created an unauthorized newspaper. He called it “The Country Club.” Barnes explained, “I would profile people. I would talk about who was going where on spring break, who was dating who, etc.” He admitted, “I didn’t make any money from that; all I got were a few visits to the principal’s office.” Nevertheless, it gave him the opportunity to give his entrepreneurial itch a little scratch. Perhaps that itch got neglected for too long as he strived for and successfully manifested awesome academic and professional endeavors.
The Inception of Kor Water
Barnes recalled, “I remember going to meetings and someone would ask ‘hey can you go get ten bottles of water?’ and then after drinking them they’d usually end up tossed in the garbage can, and it just struck me how silly that was.” As a result, Barnes began carrying around a 32 ounce Gatorade as a refillable water bottle. He admitted, “I would just keep refilling that thing for six months and it looked awful; that thing was a bacteria trap. I read an article online that said that E-coli could develop after a month’s use and it kind of freaked me out so I went to the store to get a reusable bottle, but was struck by how they were all like camping bottles. There was nothing that looked presentable in an office environment.” This was when he decided he would create a new style of reusable bottle.
The thought process that went into designing this new product was so holistic in nature that success seemed almost inevitable. It started out somewhat simple; Barnes had the idea to take the same concept that high-end water bottles like Fiji and Voss used for their design and apply to it a reusable. Barnes explained, “I had no experience in manufacturing or designing a product.” A design firm by the name of RKS was on the cover of Business Week in 2005 for a guitar they had designed, and Barnes noticed that they were in Thousand Oaks, not far from where he was at the time. He decided to take a trip up there to pitch the idea of reinventing the reusable bottle to CEO and founder of RKS, Ravi Sawhni. Barnes described it as “creating a brand around the idea of sustainable hydration, which is not just a reusable; it’s about everything: The filtered water, the bottle, the way you carry it; it’s the little things.”
The Drawing Board
Conceptualizing what would soon become a premium reusable water bottle brand was not an overnight process. When it was time to hit the drawing board, Barnes began with a few questions: “Once we’re in the market, what will Kor be? We want it to be disruptive, innovative and design centric. Is it innovative? Is it provocative? Will it cause people to notice it? Is it arresting? Would you say ‘what is that? Where’d you get that? What does it do?’” I experienced this first-hand over the course of a couple of weeks carrying their main hydration vessel called the “Kor One.” Everyone would ask me exactly that; they’d start by saying “That’s a fancy bottle you got there.” Then, I would find myself advertising the bottle’s features to them and their eyes would just widen. Immediately afterwards, they’d say things like “I want one; where’d you get it from?”
When developing a brand, you need to find a way to connect with your audience and test the waters to ensure that your brand doesn’t fall through the cracks of apathy. How did Barnes and RKS go about ensuring a quality experience? Barnes explained: “We did it by thinking about what we wanted, not so much by doing studies and focus groups.” RKS had its own strategies that would help Barnes develop a vocal brand. Using their own tactics called psychostatics, RKS would ask “What are the things that motivate you to use the products that you use throughout the day?” After distilling that into a laboratory to better inform what the product needed to be, they would get it out there for more feedback. Part of Barnes and RKS’ strategy was observation. They considered themselves to be like anthropologists, studying people from a designer’s perspective. “We look at all the brands that truly speak,” Barnes told us.
The Kor Story
Barnes emphasized the importance of brand conception and product design as a storytelling method to connect with consumers. So, what is Kor’s story? Barnes described Kor’s story as this: “We’ve had 30 years of bottled water, but why is it that we’re still being held hostage to bottled water when we are at a baseball park, hotel or airport.” The moral of the story was not difficult to follow. He was basically setting up his product to be the savior of these victims who have been programmed to believe that tap water is bad and bottled water is good. Yet, the concept of the reusable already exists. This illustrated the fact that it doesn’t matter if what you wish to create already exists as long as you recreate it and market it in a unique and appealing way. We’ve all seen decent looking reusable water bottles, but there are very few that truly stand out, that actually speak to us and communicate their story and/or brand. Not to mention, none of them were called “hydration vessels.”
Brand and Design
Interviewing Barnes was a real eye opener. He explained brand awareness and the Kor brand in a way that mimicked highly communicative brands like Apple. There’s this interesting phenomenon that occurs when the line between brand and lifestyle begins to blur. You can’t help but notice the success of companies who manage to turn their companies into psychological and emotional experiences. Barnes was really enthusiastic and began speaking passionately when describing how Kor water bottles expressed what could almost be called a culture.
He exclaimed, “Kor’s mission is to celebrate water… to put water on a pedestal. It’s a beautiful bottle, but we want it make the water taste better, placebo-wise. Even the bottle’s logo is a drop of water divided in two; it’s a Ying-Yang; it’s a modern Buddhism 2.0. The idea is balance and acceptance. The two sides of the logo reach up to touch, but they never can. It’s an acknowledgment of the divide that we have. The idea is that we try to be perfect, but never can; we fall down. What we’re saying with this is: that’s okay. The point is to accept and not to judge. I’d love to evolve Kor into a brand that can change the way that people see the world. I want to get at the kernel: the inception deep down in the brain.”
It’s fair to say that Barnes has been very successful at creating a brand around the idea of “sustainable hydration.” In fact, they’ve gone on to launch a Kor retail store concept in Rio, Brazil. Barnes described it as “an Apple-esque metro sexual style brand… the design really tells the story. It brings the brand to life.” A Kor retail store in Shanghai as well as several other major cities are also in the works. Can any idea be sold with the right kind of design, marketing, branding and storytelling? Who would’ve thought a concept as simple as a reusable water bottle (hydration vessel) could be transformed into a stylistic and lifestyle choice? Eric Barnes thought so.
It’s important to note, however, that this does not happen overnight. If you have an idea for a product and just can’t imagine doing something as awesome as Apple or Kor, it’s worth considering the fact that it took Barnes and RKS three years to create their first “hydration vessel” because of how much they considered the design aesthetics as well as practicality for their users. The motivation and ambition that went into creating this brand was rock solid. Barnes accomplished what many entrepreneurs dream of creating by ensuring that it was “an arm’s length above what everyone else would’ve expected in order to be truly disruptive.”