Yeti Made a Stupid Plastic Bottle

Given what I do for a living, I think about brands more than most people. In the modern world, brands are fascinating things that go far beyond whatever the company actually does to make money. A company’s brand is defined by what they do and say, where they spend their money, and how people perceive them, even if that perception actually has no standing in reality. A certain kind of New Balance shoes are synonymous with dorky dads. Gucci purses belong on the arm of a certain kind of woman. The loudest Ford truck on the road is assumed to have a certain kind of guy behind the wheel, deficient in a certain area of his anatomy.

As a marketer, I know how hard it is to make anyone give a damn about a brand. Just because you do something great, or make something incredible, or provide a quality service doesn’t inherently mean anyone will open your email or want to interact with your company any more than they have to. People are busy, and humans are really good at getting distracted and caught up in their own stories. It’s not often that anyone is looking for a new story to become engrossed in, especially one being told by a brand that’s trying to sell a thing.

Enter Yeti

I’ve written before about Yeti, the company that managed to do some incredible branding voodoo and make people care about over-engineered coolers. Their flagship product is the Tundra. It’s enormous and expensive, and it keeps your stuff cold for an unreasonable amount of time. You don’t have to look far to find testimonials by someone who canoed down a river for a week in the sweltering heat, their trusty Yeti cooler by their side during every precarious moment, and at the end of the expedition the ice inside was only half melted. Ignore for now the fact that 95% of consumers definitely don’t need a cooler with that ability to keep warmth at bay; it’s really cool to have a Yeti cooler. A product that was formerly only useful for barbecues or camping has become a status symbol through the magic of branding.

And then the brand managed to be in the right place at the right time when reusable bottles were taking off. The Yeti ones are metal, clang on everything, and feel like they might survive a nuclear blast. I have several of them, my favorite being a white Rambler that I got for attending the Yeti Film Tour in 2020, which happened to be one of the last things I did in public before COVID struck.

That’s right, the cooler company has their own film tour. And that’s what makes them really fascinating to me: They deepened their brand culture by not only sponsoring red-blooded American vocations like fishing and hunting, but they also hired some seriously impressive video crews to follow people around in the wilderness and create gorgeous short films.

But anyway, we’re not here to talk about their cool film fest or the fact that they breathe new life into short films, a sadly underappreciated medium which normally has no logical home. No – we’re here to talk about the fact that Yeti, a mainstay of adventure sports and a big proponent of living off the land, decided to start selling a plastic water bottle in the year 2022.

18/8 Stainless Steel

To fully unpack this bizarre business move, I think it’s first important to talk about those indestructible metal bottles that Yeti has sold for years.

The Rambler has double wall vacuum insulation, which is an awesome way to say that it does a good job keeping cold things cold and hot things hot. That’s right, baby: This thing can do both extremes. Take your coffee piping hot or cold brew the hell out of it, the Rambler doesn’t care. It’s just here to be your bulletproof drink vessel.

It’s made of 18/8 kitchen-grade stainless steel. Cool, I’m really loving this marketing speak, but what does that really mean?

It’s easy to look at the Yonder as an admission that Yeti’s all out of ideas. When tasked with growing their drinkware division, the best they could come up with was their brand’s version of a Nalgene bottle.

After scouring my usual sources (welding websites), I learned that 18/8 means that the metal is 18% chromium and 8% nickel content. It’s apparently super easy to work with, simple to clean, and incredibly durable. It won’t corrode no matter how many times you submerge it in beer or water, and so it seems like a pretty great material to use for a water bottle. By no stretch of the imagination is Yeti the only company making an 18/8 stainless steel water bottle, but they’re the ones we’re here to talk about.

The big problem with a stainless steel bottle is that it’s heavy. A 26oz Rambler weighs 1.4lbs empty, compared to a 25oz Yonder’s 0.6 lbs (more on this in a minute). Personally, I like to have a big honking water bottle really mean it by announcing its presence, and also I’m a drummer who can’t keep his hands still and a big steel water bottle makes a badass sound when thumped all over. Maybe that last sentence annoyed you; my wife commiserates with you.

The War on Plastic

Here’s where it gets fun. Yeti hasn’t exactly been a vocal supporter of the environment, but it’s easy to think they have. Sure, they put out an annual ESG report that talks about how they give back and help wild places and all that, but they’re not anywhere close to the level of other outdoors brands like Patagonia. To be honest, no one’s on Patagonia’s level (recommended reading), but I’ll still use them as the yard stick here.

The Yeti brand’s lifeblood is rock climbers and fishermen. Outdoorsy people are their bread and butter, or at least the aspiration to become those outdoorsy people is what drives many consumers to slap down the big bucks for a cooler that will keep their hypothetical fish cold for a year and a half. And in 2022, even those people who just casually aspire to be outdoorsy were pretty no-nonsense about plastic being bad.

If I told you the microplastic floating through your blood was the fancy stuff, does that make much of a difference to you?

It’s hard not to know that plastic is problematic. It’s all over the ocean. It’s in our water. It’s even in our blood! Microplastic is everywhere and in everything, and the only reason we aren’t absolutely shitting ourselves about that is because it’s such a relatively new phenomenon that we don’t know how bad that actually is, just that it’s bad.

And again, Yeti makes metal water bottles (ahem, 18/8 kitchen-grade stainless steel water bottles). The Rambler is one of their cheapest products and sort of makes them look like a hero in the fight against plastic. I can’t even tell you how many plastic bottles my own trusty white Rambler has saved, except that it’s probably so many. And yeah, I know that the lids are still plastic, but that seems to be due to manufacturing limitations (can you imagine a stainless steel lid? My drumming hands itch at the thought of more thumpy surfaces).

But what about that Tundra and the other coolers they sell? They’re rotomolded, which is a plastic-forming process that the company says is akin to a high-end kayak. Okay, so it’s fancy plastic, but if I told you the microplastic floating through your blood was the fancy stuff, does that make much of a difference to you? You still would rather not eat plastic, and it will apparently take a billion years for the plastic we’ve made to do anything close to disintegrating. More of it, we can all agree, is not ideal.

You also have to take into account that, unlike Patagonia and other outdoor brands, Yeti tends to remain politically neutral. They’re headquartered in Texas, and they seem to be pretty active in rodeo and hunting circles, neither of which would likely care much if Yeti went full Patagonia and tried to eliminate all plastic from planet earth. To illustrate their political walking of the line, in 2021 Yeti cut ties with the NRA (because the NRA is nuts), but quickly did some damage control to stress that they have unwavering support for the 2nd Amendment. Insert something here about cake and also eating it.

Anyway. Yeti isn’t necessarily on team Plastic Is Bad. But why introduce a new water bottle at all? Ramblers are time-tested, could be used as a weapon in a pinch, and do a pretty stellar job of keeping liquids in a place until they’re consumed. Why do we need something new?

Meet Capitalism

One unfortunate requirement of capitalism is that companies must constantly grow. It’s why we still have a new iPhone every single fall, like clockwork, despite the fact that smartphones are clearly a mature technology now. That requirement for constant growth is also the reason that every tech company has tried to make subscriptions for services a larger part of their business; in a world of laptops that last 10 years, how else will you consistently get money out of your users?

But wait. Yeti isn’t a tech company! They haven’t introduced any cooler subscription (don’t get any ideas, Yeti), and my Rambler from three years ago still keeps water cold as well today as it did on day one. But you know what it can’t do? Weigh less.

It’s easy to look at the Yonder as an admission that Yeti’s all out of ideas. When tasked with growing their drinkware division, the best they could come up with was their brand’s version of a Nalgene bottle. And the marketing spin on it is truly a masterclass: this is the bottle that can go anywhere, because it’s so light and ready to go with you up a mountain, or down the slopes, or wherever your journey takes you. You know, just like one of the plastic Contigos you bought over a decade ago.

The Reaction (or Lack Thereof)

I’m going on 1500 words here rambling about Ramblers and Yonders, so why do I care so much? Clearly you didn’t see my previous blog series, which broke down every entry in the Friday the 13th franchise and was proof that maybe I care too much about certain things, but anyway yes that’s a good question. A joy of capitalism is that we can see a product, say gee that’s dumb and then move on with our lives, having lost nothing in the process.

There are two reasons I care so much. For one, I expect more from Yeti. Like Solo Stove or Osprey backpacks, they have a tendency toward creating overengineered products, and for some reason that really sings to my heart. Backpacks are useful, but give me one that can carry an entire week’s worth of essentials and have a dedicated space for every type of thing I’ll ever want to bring along and I’m a fan for life. It’s not necessary, but it sure is cool.

And with the Yonder, Yeti didn’t overengineer anything. They just slapped their logo on the side of a plastic bottle and called it a day. “Leakproof” may be its defining feature, but I’m not sure a rubber gasket can be called innovation in 2022. You may be asking how, exactly, could a lightweight reusable plastic bottle be improved upon, to which I would concede that I have no idea. But I expect Yeti to. (A few ideas off the top of my head: Magnets! Key clips! Its own integrated sling!)

Innovation isn’t necessarily a requirement for every physical product, but if you’re going to spin up factories on the other side of the planet to create a thing that you expect people to pay money for, how does it differ from what came before? Yeti also sells (18/8) stainless steel dog bowls and outdoor blankets, both of which seem overpriced for what they are, but then you read the reviews and they’re positively glowing.

The joy of the Yeti brand was that it made high-quality products that worked better than you even imagined was possible. I broke down how great the Rambler is at keeping things hot and cold, and you know what every marketing page about the Yonder specifically states? That it can’t house hot liquids at all. And reviews show that ice melts pretty fast in there, too. Technically, liquid will remain inside, but at what temperature is apparently anyone’s guess.

The second reason the Yonder bugs me so much is that I haven’t found this blog post written by anyone else. Why is no one tsk-tsking Yeti over a dumb new product? This is the official sponsor of Austin’s soccer club, not to mention countless sporting events around the world. I wish they were using their considerable resources and reputation to promote something interesting, like sustainable packaging made from fungi or new methods of desalination. But no, instead we get a yawn-inducing plastic bottle.

When the Yonder launched in November, I was targeted with some announcements on Instagram, and only there was I able to see some people being less than enthusiastic. Skepticism on marketing posts is practically a requirement for Instagram, but it did help me feel a little more justified in my bewilderment. Some people wouldn’t bat an eye at a drinkware company introducing a new bottle, plastic or not, but I’m here to shout into the ether that they can do better.

So please, shout with me.

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