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Nalgene Outdoor - venturing

Nalgene Outdoor - venturing

  Nalgene Outdoor
by Jared Salter
February 21, 2005

Chemistry labs and Boy Scouts don’t normally belong in the same sentence, but don’t tell that to Nalgene Outdoor. A division of Nalge Nunc International, Nalgene Outdoor has grown into the leading manufacturer of camping bottles and containers in the US, and it all started as an accident of sorts.

In 1949, chemist Emanuel Goldberg developed the first plastic pipette holder. Goldberg and his growing team began developing the Nalgene line of polyethylene laboratory equipment to include


centrifuge bottles, filter units, storage tanks, etc. Nalgene plastics were the ideal laboratory solution; they could withstand high temperatures and reactive chemicals, and unlike glass containers, Nalgene plastic was virtually unbreakable.

In the early 1970s, Nalgene’s president Marsh Hyman learned that scientists used the laboratory containers on weekend hiking excursions. A curious Marsh took some containers on a campout with his son’s Boy Scout troop. For the same reasons Nalgene bottles were a success in the laboratory, they were the perfect addition to the backpack: lightweight, leak-proof and highly functional. Marsh returned from the campout and, according to company lore, announced a mission for the Nalgene Specialty Department: "Spread the word to outdoors people all over! Tell them about this new line of high quality camping equipment."

Unfortunately for Marsh, he forgot he was speaking to a team of Nalgene scientists—not exactly the epitome of marketing gumption. It would take another breakthrough in plastics and some old-fashioned luck before Nalgene Outdoor caught on as must-have equipment for outdoor enthusiasts.

In the late 1980s, Nalgene Outdoor introduced polycarbonate plastic technology to its product line. The new bottles were so strong they spawned an urban legend about the unbreakable bottle. According to the company, the legend continues to grow as customers send in new stories documenting feats of strength displayed by their Nalgene bottles. A teenager from Georgia writes to Nalgene about the day a 200-pound rock fell on his Nalgene bottle and the bottle won. Even better, a construction worker from Alaska reported that his bottle survived being run over by an enormous road grader. The new plastic was not only amazingly strong, but it could also be made into translucent bottles. Best of all, the new material eliminated the "plastic taste" that previously made drinking from a plastic bottle just a notch above drinking from a garden hose.

With a superior product in place, the next task was to introduce the new bottles to outdoor adventurers across the country. All it would take is a full-scale print advertising campaign; maybe even a few TV commercials—neither of which were an option. Nalgene Outdoor was still a fraction of the Nalgene Nunc International revenue. Budget constraints forced Nalgene Outdoor to settle for scattered ads in specialty magazines like Climber and Backpacker; a decision that, in the end, would be the perfect play for reaching the target audience.

Fernando Galiana, Nalgene Outdoor’s product manager, credits the lack of marketing horsepower as a major reason for the success of the Nalgene brand. He describes Nalgene customers as adventurers who "love the thrill of finding a new trail or even a new outdoor bottle. As long as our customers are discovering something, they’re happy." Almost by accident, Nalgene Outdoor gave its customers just what they were seeking—a high quality product that encouraged discovery.

They say timing is everything, and it certainly was in Nalgene’s case. Product innovations coincided perfectly with a nationwide surge in outdoor activities during the 1990s. Urban- and suburbanites by the SUV-loads poured into campgrounds in search of relaxation and fresh air. The nineties was also when a certain group of Americans decided that tap water would suffice for washing the dishes, but it had to be bottled spring water if it was going anywhere near the lips. Having a Nalgene bottle clipped to your backpack by a carabineer became a membership badge of differentiation for the eco-friendly, health conscious, youth crowd.

By 1999, Nalgene Outdoor caught on to this whole "marketing thing," and began introducing colored bottles that come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Today, you can purchase Nalgene branded products ranging from sports bottles to eye-drop bottles. An agreement with Jansport has paired Nalgene hydration packs with Jansport backpacks in a push to cut into Camelpak’s market share. As long as it needs to be leak-proof, durable, and functional, Nalgene is interested in making it. If Nalgene has its way, you’ll soon be feeding your infant with a Nalgene bottle and storing your leftovers in Nalgene containers. Tupperware beware.


Jared Salter is a Boy Scout dropout, avid backpacker and brand aficionado at Interbrand San Francisco.

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