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Rob Koenen: “Simplify your message”

Simplify your message. In the beginning, we were way too technical in our messaging…thinking that everyone studied plastic and understood that recycling isn’t working. It wasn’t until we dialed back to the very basics of recycling — -i.e. 1,500 bottles are made every second and 90% are garbage…. then people finally started to understand the scale. People […]

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Simplify your message. In the beginning, we were way too technical in our messaging…thinking that everyone studied plastic and understood that recycling isn’t working. It wasn’t until we dialed back to the very basics of recycling — -i.e. 1,500 bottles are made every second and 90% are garbage…. then people finally started to understand the scale. People are busier than ever and don’t have time to unpack a complicated message.


As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Rob Koenen.

Rob is the Chief Marketing Officer of Boxed Water Is Better; the first national company to offer a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles. Rob is charged with expanding Boxed Water’s core message and empowering consumers to make a statement that “sustainability matters.” Rob’s extensive marketing and leadership experience is rooted in story-telling with innovative campaigns that span multiple communication channels. In his role at Boxed Water, Rob leads the brand’s trial and awareness efforts, digital opportunities, and retail experiences. In prior leadership roles, Rob has built true lifestyle brands for companies in food, apparel and footwear.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I don’t think there is a straight-line career-path for anyone; you have to go where your heart takes you. Boxed Water™ was not on my career path when I graduated from college. I was going to be a stockbroker. After a few years, I was needing a creative outlet, so I started working on brand building. I had the traditional career path in larger corporations, primarily in the fashion industry. My career took me all over the world and eventually, I ended running some of them. I loved making connections with consumers and building trust; but at a certain point in your life, you realize you want to do more than build a brand; you want to leave something more enduring. So I looked for a way to help others….I was blind to the plastic pollution problem like the rest of us, until my daughter mentioned that Boxed Water Is Better® was focused on renewably packaged on-the-go water. After researching the problem, it was clear that robbing the planet to service a single-use society is not sustainable.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, with Rollerblade, our leaders wanted to branch out into other products. They had an offsite where they looked into other opportunities and came back with the idea of selling Rollerblade bicycles….since both in-line skates and bicycles have wheels; so it was a natural connection to them. I was in charge of innovation and had to launch the concept. After numerous focus groups, we showed that wheels were not a connective tissue for the consumers. Luckily, we were able to redirect our efforts to an “off road” skate which was a success. The overriding lesson is to look at your business through the eyes of the consumer. Realize that your consumer is not thinking about your brand, your product, or your product category as much as you are (or should be)….so always step back and think of how you fit into their world; not the other way around.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our consumers and our community make Boxed Water special. We make great water, but beyond that, we believe strongly that one small act can make a big impact. As such, we’ve been planting trees in our national forests and for every photo of our box that is posted by consumers at @boxedwater or #betterplanet we plant a tree. For free. Think about that…do you know of a company that is willing to that? And based on our consumer posts, we’ve planted over 1,000,000 trees with the National Forest Foundation so far. We have a passionate community of people who want to help this planet.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have a ton going on…We finally developed a new plant-based cap which is made from the by-product of paper production. This is a huge breakthrough and now our carton is made from 92% renewable materials. Most plastic is made from petroleum oil and some companies have been offering caps made from sugarcane residue as an alternative. Sugar cane is not an environmentally-friendly crop, and now it’s being grown to make plastic. This didn’t make sense to us, so we waited until we could use caps that leave a smaller environmental footprint. We are working on our next million trees- “You Post. We Plant.” We are also working with our partners on beach cleaning…and just finished a Life Cycle analysis that shows how plastic and aluminum production is a greater emerging threat than anybody had anticipated. We are always challenging ourselves to do “better.” It’s in our name.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Branding today is rooted in your brand’s values and provides transparency into your company’s personality. Advertising usually revolves around product features, or lifestyle shots of models implying that you can have a better life with a particular product. Consumers have moved far beyond this type of advertising, but a lot of companies have yet to figure that out. For us, plenty of companies provide pure pH neutral, BPA free water like us; but we’re the only ones that go beyond water into reforestation and other major environmental efforts. Branding builds an emotional connection and relationship with the consumer built on trust — and asks them to come along with us on a journey.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Consumers are smarter and have more resources than ever. They have been over-marketed to and are skeptical of claims. The internet gives them the tools to do extensive research into your brand beyond its products. Your website is a critical source of information to introduce you to current and future consumers. Also, it’s a perfect place to get feedback from them. Remember, they will also be visiting your competitors’ websites, so you better be compelling.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

Simplify your message. In the beginning, we were way too technical in our messaging…thinking that everyone studied plastic and understood that recycling isn’t working. It wasn’t until we dialed back to the very basics of recycling — -i.e. 1,500 bottles are made every second and 90% are garbage…. then people finally started to understand the scale. People are busier than ever and don’t have time to unpack a complicated message.

Focus on the consumer in every way. Everything we do goes through a consumer-lens. We ask ourselves if it’s important, impactful, understandable for our consumer. We also listen to our consumer. So many consumers asked us about single-use, that we started testing our product over multiple refills. It turns out our product is refillable and reusable. So now we have a sustainable and refillable option.

Live your values (set values). This is another way to be authentic. In today’s market, consumers can see if you’re just paying lip-service. Make sure you set down some solid values- and make sure you live to them- in all aspects of the business; staffing, messaging, quality etc.

Find your tribe — consumers and partners that believe in what you believe. We have high standards and have turned down partners that want to use us as a publicity stunt. Protect what you have built and don’t chase down a fast buck…your reputation is your brand. Conversely, once you find an authentic partner- do all you can to support them.

Leverage partnerships. We’ve managed to find like-minded companies with comparable consumers — we’ve used social media, field marketing and promotions to share each other’s messages. Many hands make lighter work.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Patagonia is the easiest answer. They have consistently held to their beliefs of great product, but moreover helping the planet. But I salute some of the brands that go out of their core competency to support the environment….Some of our partners like Rag&Bone, DVF in fashion or Dogpound fitness are companies that could keep buying plastic, but have made the commitment to switch to a sustainable alternative. Companies like this have taken millions of bottles out of circulation, and aren’t doing it for publicity.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

In our company, we look at Marketing as demand-creation. Everything we do should drive demand in some manner; but some things are more directly related to sales. We set up KPI’s like any company, but sometimes sales are secondary in the brand-building strategies to consumer loyalty and awareness. We know that once people know the facts about plastic, or our overarching brand mission, they will make the right choice for the planet. For example, our reforestation efforts are part of brand-building, and we’ve had many new customers choose us strictly because they want to be part of 1,000,0000 trees. But in the end, our brand reflects the beliefs held by our employees and our customers….like-minded people can join the brand and sales will come naturally.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Critical to branding. As I stated earlier, our website is the most critical platform to tell our story. Social media and digital advertising will bring people to your website as well as amplify your brand’s message. In addition, it’s a chance to show your brand’s personality — are you serious, luxurious or relatable and fun. It’s also a great way to measure your message. We spent 8 years trying to explain why recycling is no longer enough — you need to use renewable materials…..we were able to see when the market shifted to understanding sustainability and started looking to us for answers. Social media also is a two-way street. We listen and learn from our consumers everyday- and on every subject.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Make sure you find other outlets to find balance….whether it’s reading, exercise, or family….do something that helps you unplug. Make sure your teams are also taking time. You’re only as good as your team, so make sure that they’re taking enough time to be energized. And make sure you make time for fun.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I honestly believe that the world-wide single use plastic pollution problem, coupled with the aluminum problem, will be one of the greatest threats to our environment’s eco-system…education and hunger.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My two favorites are:

Persistence breaks down resistance

You didn’t get up today to be mediocre

Over the years, I’ve found both to be true. If you believe and stay persistent, you will eventually meet your goals.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

My daughter and I just had that conversation……both of us said: Malcom Gladwell. He offers most unique insights into modern culture. I’ll buy breakfast.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

One small act can make a big difference. Everything is on Boxedwaterisbetter.com, but also follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook…[email protected]….but also post a picture #betterplanet….Help us plant the next million trees….it’s actually fun to see all the creative posts. And, learn more on the aluminum effect here…. https://boxedwaterisbetter.com/blogs/blog/is-aluminum-really-sustainable

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