Hydro Flask started out at farmers markets. Here’s how it got so huge

  • Hydro Flask, an insulated water bottle, has become a must-have accessory for tweens and teens. Teens like its sleek and customizable look, its durability and the notion that they're helping protect the planet from environmental harm, and it has become a staple of the 'VSCO girl' aesthetic. The product was launched by an outdoorsy couple, but now it's run by a $4-billion company whose other brands include OXO, which makes the most mainstream of kitchen tools. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Jelly shoes. JNCO jeans. Juicy Couture tracksuits. Ugg boots. Over the decades, any number of fashion pieces have enjoyed their moment as an “it” item. Now we’re in the era of must-have water bottle.

The Hydro Flask looks like what it is: a sleek, insulated, color-coated stainless-steel container for storing liquid.

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How it distinguished itself from any other bottle at sporting goods stores and became a hot fashion accessory is a story about the convergence of several cultural threads: anxiety about the environment, a surge in attention to self-care and wellness, and the simple desire to keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold.

The result? A Hydro Flask has become the kind of gift that can send a tween into paroxysms of joy.

Newport Beach, Calif., sixth-grader Ella Lin Espinosa put one at the top of her Christmas wish list. When she opened the present, “I literally freaked out and I was just screaming because I loved it so much!” she recalled, still giddy.

Hydro Flask is the rare mom-and-pop brand that won the hearts and minds of America’s youths and celebrities — after it sold out to a global conglomerate. And its success hinges on its ability to help its owner make not just a fashion statement but perhaps also a political one.

Toting a Hydro Flask — which starts at about $30 — shows off a person’s eco-chic credentials, said Richard Wilk, professor emeritus of anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington: It broadcasts the message, “Not only am I smart and stylish but I’m interested in saving the world.”

The thermos has been a consumer item for decades, with the Stanley name alone dating back a century. In recent years, Nalgene’s transparent plastic bottles experienced surges of popularity, especially after the brand started making them free of bisphenol A, a chemical commonly used in plastics.

Concerns about BPA’s health effects, in turn, helped bring Hydro Flask into existence.

In 2008, Travis Rosbach opted to make the switch to reusable bottles. He bought two metal bottles and wound up hating both. So he and his then-girlfriend, Cindy Weber, decided to make a better bottle. Hydro Flask was born.

They moved to Bend, Ore., where outdoorsy culture thrives, and their bottle was a hit at farmers markets in the area. Campers and hikers flocked to it. Rosbach recalled some growing pains — they had to learn how to navigate the manufacturing process in China, and an early batch of 40,000 bottles arrived rusty and without insulation — but local enthusiasm kept them going, he said.

After they got their canteens into stores, Hydro Flask’s popularity expanded even further, Weber recalled.

“It just, like, exploded,” she said. “It was hard because we grew so fast … and that was pretty exciting, but at the same time, your cash flow was difficult.”

Under the guidance of longtime tech executive Scott Allan, who became president and CEO in 2012 following the split of Weber and Rosbach, Hydro Flask started selling in Europe; launched new items such as backpack-style water containers for people on the go; and stepped up its social media presence, securing promotion from influencers.

Then things really got huge. In 2016, consumer products conglomerate Helen of Troy swooped in, acquiring Hydro Flask for about $210 million, propelling Hydro Flask to dominance.

The company doesn’t disclose sales figures for the brand, but its housewares division — which consists only of Hydro Flask and kitchenware brand OXO — has been jumping. In its most recent quarter, which ended Nov. 30, 2019, the division had sales of $183.2 million, up 28.2% from 2018.

The brand’s multiplicity of offerings gives people who already have one Hydro Flask reasons to get another. And maybe another after that.

With limited-edition series and several ways to mix and match colors and accessories, Hydro Flask creates a “just one more” feeling, according to analyst Robert J. Labick, president of CJS Securities. There’s the standard bottle and tumblers, plus specially created canteens to carry coffee, beer and wine. Those can all be customized with special caps and reusable straws.

“You can have one, but if you don’t have a limited-edition shaved ice one, you have to have that one,” said Labick, who owns a Hydro Flask tumbler for coffee, 40-ounce and 30-ounce bottles for hiking and coaching games and a backpack-style container for hiking.

La Habra High School senior Natalia Losoya has two Hydro Flasks. She first got a 40-ounce blueberry-colored bottle to use for soccer practice and later scooped up an 18-ounce bottle to keep in her car. She enjoys how well it keeps her water cold, and noted that it’s cheaper to buy a canteen than keep shelling out for single-use bottles of water.

Environmental and health concerns, meanwhile, got her mother to jump on the bandwagon. “We recycle everything, so when I got a Hydro and told my mom, who is really health-conscious and knows about chemicals that are in water bottles, she freaked out over it and wanted one,” Natalia said.

Hydro Flask is also benefiting from the soaring amount of attention Americans are paying to wellness and self-care.

U.S. consumer spending on health-related products and services soared 27% from 2013 to 2018 and isn’t expected to slow anytime soon, according to market research firm Mintel, which projected that the spending would balloon an additional 21% over the next five years.

After nearly eight years at the helm, Allan will step down in March. The move is part of a multiyear plan, according to Helen of Troy, which said it won’t immediately fill his role.

An ongoing project, Allan said, is for the company to improve its sustainability practices. It has tapped outdoor companies such as REI and Columbia Sportswear to learn about sourcing and labor conditions, and it’s trying to make more recyclable packaging, he said.

Most Hydro Flask products are made in China, where, he said, factory employees and third-party companies do audits and drop-ins to ensure a “toxic-free environment” and uphold safe working conditions.

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Back in Newport Beach, Ella Lin’s Christmastime excitement hasn’t worn off. Her mother, Alison Yap, said the sixth-grader still uses her Hydro Flask every day. She cleans and refills it when she gets home from school. Before going to dance class, she’ll add some ice.

Stickers and drawings aren’t her style: She has kept the bottle sleek and pristine. “I love taking it to school and drinking out of it,” she said. “I feel confident … just holding it.”

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