Chilly's bottles have become the byword for stylish reusables, thanks to a focus on design and desirability over austere moralising. Director of creative and marketing Phil Jacobson tells LBB’s Laura Swinton how storytelling, a strong point of view and clever collabs are supercharging the brand
When James Butterfield and Tim Bouscarle launched reusables brand Chilly's in 2010, they didn’t just face all of the usual challenges that come with starting a new business and bringing a new product to market. They also had to create and justify a whole new category - design-led lifestyle reusables - had a right to exist when anyone desperate for a transportable beverage could just use a chunky camping flask. They also had to convince others that a future where carrying a reusable bottle or coffee cup was seen as a normal behaviour was a realistic proposition and not a niche concern for activists and hardcore environmentalists.
So what’s behind Chilly’s success? Timing, and getting into the market just as concern around the climate crisis and plastic pollution was about to explode, clearly played a part. But according to director of creative and marketing Phil Jacobson, a focus on craft and creativity helped the brand stand out from the pious messaging and sludgy aesthetic that was common to sustainable products at the time. It also results in a lightness of touch that keeps the brand focused and prevents its messaging veering into grandiose claims.
“It goes back to the founders who have been instrumental in creating the brand and product and making the lifestyle desirable. The products have got to be beautiful - we have so many beautiful products in our daily lives, why can’t reusables be desirable and not boring?” explains Phil. “They were quick to embrace the bottle specifically as a canvas for creativity and design and some of our most passionate conversations are around design and graphic design and what appeals to different audiences and how we can bring new audiences into reusables by making it desirable, appealing and attractive.”
A poster from Chilly's sharp and witty 2019 Christmas campaign
As the brand and its product range has grown, the Chilly's team has carefully and strategically used design to nurture diverse audiences. Worried Gen Z-ers understated but design-conscious professionals, and community-minded, litter-hating pensioners - there’s something to appeal to them all. Most recently, Chilly's launched a collaboration with Liberty, a heritage luxury brand and retailer known for its vintage prints - a collection that lands soundly with what Phil’s team calls the ‘head of household’ audience. But if complex floral prints ain’t your thing, there’s a black design that’s covered in cartoon skulls from design studio Alternative Aesthetics.
With such a diverse range of people buying into the brand, the team Chilly's also has a broad view of platforms and a very specific idea of how it needs to show up in different places and talk to different audiences.
The collaboration with Liberty marks a step forward for Chilly's. They’ve never done a partnership of this scale before and it brings both brands to new audiences and it embodies one of Chilly's internal mantras perfectly: ‘ambitiously collaborate’. Internally, they’re keen to encourage engaged and open collaboration between departments and with external partners like agencies and film directors.
In the case of Liberty, it’s a brand that is so established and creative, with its own design history, that the partnership had to do it justice. Creating something that respected the ethos and aesthetic of both could not be achieved without such ambitious collaboration.
“With collaborations around the product like the Liberty’s collaboration, getting to that result and kind of quality takes a lot of great relationship building and trust between teams and understanding of what the mission is,” says Phil, who is excited about the prospect of hooking up with other kind of brands who might take Chilly's to unexpected places. “Ambitiously collaborate’ is something that we feel is really unique to Chilly’s as something that we’ve put at the heart of the brand because it will create great creativity and fantastic brand on all levels.”
How B2B - Yes B2B - Made Chilly's Cool
The brand has spread to its different audiences in unexpected ways. Back in the early 2010s, students and committed activists were the key market, but then those students would show their bottles to their parents, who would then pick up on it. Similarly - and perhaps unusually - Chilly's owes its consumer market to the B2B side of the business. Companies, organisations, schools, sports clubs and more can create their own co-branded Chilly's products. Before the brand was able to market at the scale it does today, the B2B side of the business almost served as a marketing channel in itself, putting the product in people’s hands.
“I’ve come across so many people who have been introduced to the brand through a co-brand product that they received on their first day at work or at an offsite at their company or school!” laughs Phil. “On the one hand, for companies and schools, to show their values around helping minimise the environmental impact, encouraging people not to use single-use plastic, and it’s a responsible gift from the company to us as members of those communities. And yet, from our side it’s a fantastic way of normalising reusables with a lot of different audiences that wouldn’t have come across our brand.”
Why Storytelling is Chilly’s Bottle Rocket
When Phil joined the Chilly’s team under a year ago, he had a pretty good foundation to build from. He says that any marketer promising to make ‘the Hoover of the reusable space’ would have been laughed out the building, and yet that’s exactly what the team had done through great design and sharply art directed, witty campaigns. However, Phil has been brought in to take Chilly’s marketing to the next level, particularly when it comes to viewpoint and storytelling. Having spent many years at Nike where he led brand communication, Phil had exactly the experience the creatively-minded founders were looking for.
“There was a lot to work with and an amazing mission,” says Phil. “One of the first things I think that I noticed was that the point of view wasn’t really sharp enough. There was an opportunity to be much more about what our vision is and what our point of view is without resorting to what I call ‘guilt comms’, which is what a lot of sustainability brands lean on. That’s not the way we want to inspire people into a lifestyle, from product and the design and the partnerships but also in terms of communication it should feel entertaining and uplifting and inspiring. Something you want to be a part of rather than something that you’re force fed or guilted into.”
In November this year, Chilly's launched a huge new campaign that set out its vision for the future. Set in 2025, ‘A reusable way of living’ shows what might happen if we start using reusable cups and food pots at bars, cafes and takeaways - and as the spot unfolds we start to see the ‘ghosts’ of all the single-use plastics that would never need to be created, let alone used. It’s an optimistic and hopeful approach, and the team have been keen not to over promise. Rather than putting the weight of the world and its salvation on peoples’ behaviour and choices - instead it positions the act of using reusables as easy and breezy.
“It’s exactly that tension that we wanted to express in the vision of the UK in 2025. It isn’t some sort of grandiose overclaim that ‘Chilly’s has saved the world’, but that actually a small change in lots of different environments that are very natural and can be really achievable and accessible to everybody,” explains Phil. “We took reusables into spaces that are not really known for it, whether it’s a football club or the village chippy or the local cafe. While the bottle is quite far along the adoption curve, the cups and food pots are much earlier in the adoption curve. It’s still unusual for someone in a coffee shop to take out their reusable and give it to the barista.”
Of course, when it comes to Chilly's marketing, it’s not enough to simply talk about sustainability. According to Phil, minimising the environmental impact of the brands content production is paramount. For this campaign, Phil says that production company Object & Animal was inspired and engaged with Chilly's desire to reduce impact and eliminate single use plastics. Phil says he hopes that a reusable bottle can become as standard a part of production crew’s kit as a Northface jacket and Leatherman. Moreover, the window display in Liberty’s, highlighting the collaboration between the brands, was created using paper that was recycled and recyclable, so that circularity filters into everything.
And that spirit of sustainability also filters into Phil’s view on marketing as an industry. A weirdly masochistic machismo in marketing and advertising has, over the years, lionised and normalised long working hours, ridiculous last minute deadlines and other dysfunctional practices.
“A reusable way of living is obviously all about minimising that environmental impact, but for me personally, it’s an even more profound message about a sustainable way of working and living,” says Phil. “We’ve all questioned our working life throughout this pandemic period and that’s been, I think, really positive and we hope to be part of that conversation as well. We try to live and breathe our values as an employer with our teams, so that we’re not pushing people into crazy hours or unreasonable deadlines, the things that can come up in creative marketing. It’s often seen as the only way of doing it, right? But actually it’s possible to do it without the madness and unsustainability of it all.”
A Virtuous Cycle
In the interest of circularity, looking back to the beginning of the brand and the beginning of the piece, Chilly's finds itself with a very different position and with very different challenges than it did back in 2010, or even 2015. Are the team concerned about Johnny come lately competitors sliding into a category Chilly's has pioneered? Not so much, it turns out. It’s that spirit of ambitious collaboration again.
“We’ve proven that the category has a right to exist and is expanding into different sub categories as well. We invite people along, other brands to share the mission. We realise that we’re not going to do this ourselves. This is going to be a movement, which was already started and shared, but really we’re more concerned about the mineral water business and the coffee category as the spaces we want to challenge, rather than competitors.”
2021 ended strongly for Chilly’s. Between the huge TV push and a brand new Tiktok channel, both launched in November, the brand’s been working hard to get its products out there and to normalise reusables. The last quarter of the year saw strong sales, says Phil, leaving them in a strong position to reach its goals in 2022. With a growing presence outside of the UK - 50% of Chilly's business comes from the European Union - Chilly's intends to increase its presence both on different platforms and geographies.
It’s been quite some trajectory for the brand and Phil’s excited for the collaborations to come this year and the next phase of the campaign, which he cryptically teases will build on the vision but will focus more on actions.
“Our ambitions are to be the global authority in reusables and we believe that we’ve got a right, just as much as anyone else, to make that leap, globally,” says Phil.
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