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Don't Judge a Drink by Its Bottle

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We learned an interesting lesson this month about the danger of hiding your light under a bushel. Over the past few years, we had been working hard with bottle suppliers to find ways to decrease the weight of our plastic (Polyethylene terephthalate or PET) bottle. There are obvious environmental benefits for such a package -- such a move could eliminate up to 1 million pounds of PET resin on an annual basis. Another advantage of a lighter bottle is that it takes less fuel to ship (before and after filling). And, of course, we'd save money as well because the price of the bottles is directly tied to the amount of resin in the bottle.

It's been impressive to watch what's happened in the bottled water industry over the past few years. In 2000, the average 500 milliliter water bottle weighed 24 grams empty. Today, the average water bottle is 12 grams, and manufacturers continue their race to out-lighten each other. Bottled water marketers have a big advantage over bottled tea suppliers because they are able to fill their bottles cold. To pasteurize tea, we have to fill our bottles at 190 degrees. When hot liquid goes into a plastic bottle, the bottle expands — that's why when you peel off the label of a Gatorade bottle you see expansion panels underneath. We designed our bottle to expand on the bottom when the hot tea is poured in — once it cools, the bottom pops up and the bottle maintains its round shape. You may see some bottled teas in lighter-weight bottles, but they are using preservatives (in lieu of pasteurization) to keep their drink safe. Honest Tea is committed to organics, so those super-thin bottles are not an option for us.

We worked over several years with our supplier, Graham Packaging, to design a lighter weight package that looks similar to our previous bottle (click here to see our old and new bottle -- the original was 38 grams and the new one is 30 grams). We managed to design a bottle that is 22 percent lighter, though we had to add a deeper cavity underneath the bottle because the thinner bottle needed more support in order to maintain its structure. As the new bottle starts hitting store shelves, we have been hearing from consumers who think that the new bottle is our way of trying to sell them more air. Who hasn't been disappointed to open up a bag of chips and find out there seems to be more air than chips? Here is a typical e-mail that we received from a customer named John:

I just bought a bottle of Orange Mango, and was amazed that the bottle is so deceptively designed.

The bottom of the bottle has been designed with a hollow to displace fluid,
making it appear that the customer is buying more than is the case.

Yes its 16.9 ounces, but I'm sure your marketing dept has determined that
purchases are based on visual impressions.

I have bought your product regularly, but will stop

With a name like Honest Tea, I would expect more than these types of cheap tricks!

My partner Barry responded with this note:

Dear John,

Many thanks for writing, for your honest critique, and your longstanding support. We recently switched to a thinner bottle, one which is 22 percent lighter. This saves us money and saves the world resources. The only problem is that the thinner bottle had the risk of getting dented. In fact, this was a real problem that forced us to redesign the bottle. To help keep its shape, the inside must be under pressure. When the bottle is filled with hot tea, the liquid expands and the plug on the bottom pops out. (If you squeeze real hard, you can make this happen.) Then as the tea cools, the plug pops back in and creates the pressure on the inside that prevents the bottles from being damaged. The thinner plastic means we needed more pressure and hence the bigger plug. There really is 16.9 ounces inside and we aren't trying to pull a fast one. But I can see how you could get confused or could think that we are trying to be deceptive. We need to do a better job explaining why the bottle has this design. In the next label run we plan to say something to explain this to our customers. I hope that makes you feel that you can still trust us and will stick with us.

Honestly yours,
Barry


Once we explained the physics of the bottle, John's response was quite different:

Thanks for that explanation. I feel I may have jumped to conclusions, but I'm glad I wrote and didn't just abandon you guys!

The physics behind the design solution are actually very interesting.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my concerns. I'm glad to hear what it was all about.

I will continue to support Honest Tea!

Of course, the challenge for us is that most consumers won't take the time to write us, and we will end up losing customers because we took a major step forward for sustainability. So the lesson here is that while environmental efficiencies can help a business, make sure to communicate what you are doing and why it's important. Sometimes a positive step for the environment could be a step backward for business if you don't explain it to consumers.

Occasionally I worry that all our talk about organics, healthier products, Fair Trade, and sustainable packaging might come off as bragging, but I am starting to be more comfortable heeding Golda Meir's advice. She once said, "Don't be so humble, you are not that great."

Last updated: Oct 6, 2009

SETH GOLDMAN | Columnist | Co-founder of Honest Tea

Seth Goldman is Co-Founder and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. Today, Honest Tea is the nation’s top selling organic bottled tea, and is carried in more than 100,000 outlets. Under Seth’s leadership, Honest Tea has developed innovative partnerships with its organic and Fair Trade Certified™ suppliers. Seth graduated from Harvard College (1987) and the Yale School of Management (1995), and is a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. Seth and Barry are the authors of the New York Times bestseller Mission in a Bottle, a business book told in comic book form, which was published in September 2013.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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